Warsaw Ghetto: 15 May 1943
McCormack & Sons of London, auctioneers: December 2014
Monet’s Garden, Giverny: 1920
Outback Queensland: December, 1985
Berchtesgaden: Christmas Eve, 2008
Warsaw: December 2007
Imperial Crypt, Vienna: 2012
A coffin key and a boy with psychic powers: Imperial Crypt, Vienna: 2012
The thirty-five million pound painting and the megastar
The old man in the Swiss mansion
The email from Gstaad
Arrogance and pride
Warsaw Ghetto: August 1942
Warsaw Ghetto: The ‘sale’
Six months later
More books from the Author
About the Author
Connect with the Author
THE FORGOTTEN PAINTING
“Where it all began…”
Jack Rogan Mysteries Book 1
This book is brought to you by Bear & King Publishing.
Publishing Consultant: Lama Jabr
First published 2016 © Gabriel Farago
The right of Gabriel Farago to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright Amendment (Moral Rights) Act 2000.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (for example, fair dealing for the purposes of study, research, criticism or review) no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Signup for the author’s New Releases mailing list and get a free copy of ‘Letters from the Attic’ and step behind the scenes of the ‘Jack Rogan Mysteries’ Click here to get started.
A few weeks ago, my publicist left a message on my phone: ‘Must talk; urgent!’ Assuming something was wrong, I called her back at once. To the best of my recollection, this was the gist of our conversation:
‘You have a lot of new supporters out there and many have subscribed to your mailing list, follow you on Twitter, have become Facebook friends and are part of your launch team. They all want to know what’s happening’, she said.
‘They know what’s happening; we are about to release the next book’, I replied.
‘Yes, but we should reward them for their loyalty and support, and offer them something in return: a gift.’
‘What kind of gift?’
‘Well, they are all readers, so giving them something interesting to read would be a good idea …’
I realised at once where this was heading. ‘What’s on your mind?’ I asked, expecting the worst.
‘What? I’ve just finished The Hidden Genes of Professor K, and you want me to write a novella? Now? Just like that?’
‘Exactly. No more than say, thirty-thousand words. Something exciting, a page-turner to showcase your writing. What would be really great is if you could feature your main characters and create a storyline that somehow touches on all of your three books. You know, come up with something really interesting that gives your readers something new, creates a little mystery and perhaps extends the plot,’ she prattled on, warming to the subject, ‘and answers some of the questions left open in the books and then ties everything together. Does this make sense?’
‘Do you know what you’re asking?’
‘Come on … you can do it!’
‘I don’t know …’
‘And one more thing …’
‘Yes?’ I asked apprehensively.
‘I really need it now! This is urgent! So, get right into it.’
‘But I’m going to Japan next week; my walking tour, remember?’ I protested lamely. I always like to take some time off after finishing a book.
‘No problem! You can think about the storyline while you walk, and then write it all down when you get back. Perfect! Sorry; must dash!’
Well, that’s how The Forgotten Painting started. I did go to Japan the following week, and for twelve blissful days without internet, I walked part of the famous Nakasendo Way, a historic seventh-century Shogun trade route crossing the mountains from Kyoto to Tokyo. Surprisingly, I did find time to think about the storyline, how to combine all the necessary elements suggested by my publicist, and turn it into a novella that is both exciting and entertaining. It was quite a challenge. This is what I came up with. My little gift to you. I hope you enjoy it.
Leura, Blue Mountains: 1 August 2016
At the book launch, I noticed a reader looking at my novella. I saw her frowning so I went over to ask if she had any questions.
‘It’s very short’, she said. ‘Is this some kind of prequel?’
‘Yes … and no’, I replied.
“What kind of answer is that?’ she demanded.
‘Well, it’s a little difficult to explain …’
‘Try; you’re a writer, yes?’
‘Good point. Have you read the Author’s Note at the beginning of this book?’
‘That explains some of it, but there’s more …’
‘Tell me about it.’
‘It’s where it all began.’
‘The Jack Rogan Mysteries.’
‘Please explain …’
‘Well, all of my books are loosely connected, but they are not sequels. Each of them ‘stands alone’ and can be read separately. However, they are all linked …’
‘In what way?’
‘Through the characters, and of course the storylines. Jack Rogan is my central character. He’s in all the books …’
‘Ah; hence The Jack Rogan Mysteries, right?’
‘Exactly. If you read my books in the correct order, you can follow Jack Rogan’s adventures and his life …’
‘So, I should really begin with The Empress Holds The Key, and then read The Disappearance of Anna Popov and so on?’
‘Yes. If you do that, you’ll get a lot more out of my books because you will pick up the finer points and nuances from the other books, if you know what I mean. But you should really start with this one, The Forgotten Painting, because–’
‘That’s where it all began?’ she interrupted. ‘And that’s why it’s Book One?’
‘Precisely! If you start with this one, it will introduce you to the Jack Rogan Mysteries and all of my published books in the series. That’s why it’s free; a little present to my readers to pique their interest.’
‘You’ve certainly piqued mine.’
‘Good. And you will find excerpts from all of my books at the back of this novella, which will give you an idea of what you can expect.’
‘Great. What are you working on now?’
‘My next book, of course.’
‘The one coming after The Hidden Genes of Professor K?’
‘What’s it called?’
‘The Stolen Recipes of Suleiman The Magnificent.’
‘Wow! What’s that all about?’
‘I have included a little ‘teaser’ at the end of The Hidden Genes of Professor K, which tells you all you need to know – for now.’
‘A few chapters perhaps?’ she asked, hopefully.
‘Yes. All of my books have an extract from the next book included at the end.’
‘To create anticipation, I suppose.’
‘Yes, and let my readers know what’s coming next.’
‘Great idea. When will it be released?’
‘All going well, towards the end of next year; 2017.’
‘In the meantime, you can read all of my other books and get into the swing of things.’
‘Are you tempting me?’ she said.
‘I certainly hope so!’
Warsaw Ghetto: 15 May 1943
McCormack & Sons of London, auctioneers: December 2014
Monet’s Garden, Giverny: 1920
Outback Queensland: December, 1985
Berchtesgaden: Christmas Eve, 2008
Warsaw: December 2007
Imperial Crypt, Vienna: 2012
A coffin key and a boy with psychic powers: Imperial Crypt, Vienna: 2012
The thirty-five million pound painting and the megastar
The old man in the Swiss mansion
The email from Gstaad
Arrogance and pride
Warsaw Ghetto: August 1942
Warsaw Ghetto: The ‘sale’
Six months later
More books from the Author
The Empress Holds the Key
The Disappearance of Anna Popov
The Hidden Genes of Professor K
About the Author
Connect with the Author
The major looked at the devastation around him, and smiled. It was over. The uprising that had begun on 19 April 1943 had been crushed. His superiors would be pleased. Streets littered with corpses, smouldering ruins and the stench of death was all that remained of the once crowded ghetto. A gentle rain had made the pools of congealed blood on the pavements slippery. Grey skies wept, lamenting the senseless brutality and slaughter. The major’s men, all SS, were methodically searching every building for the few remaining survivors who had gone into hiding. Everyone else was either dead, or had already been deported to concentration camps.
‘Herr Sturmbannfuehrer, in here!’ shouted one of the major’s men, waving from the other side of the street. ‘We found some.’ The major crossed the road and followed the man into the building. ‘They were hiding under the floorboards on the first floor,’ continued the officer, ‘a whole family. Quite ingenious.’
The major looked at the bearded man sitting next to a frightfully thin woman and three children—two boys and a girl—cowering on the floor in front of him. The man was clutching a violin case to his chest. ‘Your name’, demanded the major.
‘Krakowski’, stammered the man, barely able to speak.
‘Your wife and children?’
The man nodded.
The major pulled his gun, a Luger, out of its holster and pointed it to the man’s head. ‘Are there any others hiding in this building?’
‘No’, whispered the man. ‘Spare them. It was my idea; let the children go.’ The major was about to pull the trigger when something caught his eye; a painting hanging on the wall above a sideboard. He lowered his gun, walked over to the painting and looked at it. ‘Yours?’ he asked.
‘Where did you get it from?’
‘It was given to me.’
‘The artist himself.’
‘How come?’ asked the major, and turned around to face the man on the floor.
‘It was after one of my concerts in Paris in 1920.’
‘You are a musician?’
‘Yes. I play the violin.’
For a while, the major looked thoughtfully at the wretch on the floor in front of him. Then he turned to the officer standing in the doorway and said, ‘Take them to the train station.’
‘Jawohl, Herr Sturmbannfuehrer’, replied the officer.
As soon as he was alone, the major reached into his tunic and pulled out a pocket knife. Extraordinary, he thought, staring at the signature at the bottom. Then he lifted the painting off the wall, placed it on the sideboard and began to carefully dismantle the frame.
The auctioneer glanced at his watch, adjusted his bowtie and looked at the excited crowd waiting for the auction to begin. The response had been overwhelming. With worldwide publicity creating unprecedented interest in the painting, a successful outcome seemed assured. He could recognise representatives of several leading galleries from around the world in the audience. They were rubbing shoulders with some of his regulars; all well-heeled collectors for whom money was no object when it came to acquiring something so precious and unique. All of them were potential buyers, even with the stratospheric estimates the painting was expected to reach. The high-profile art critics and journalists who were also in attendance, albeit for quite different reasons, would ensure the bidding would be spirited and go through the roof. It wasn’t often that a newly discovered painting by one of the most sought after impressionists came on the market. And then, there was more; so much more …
This only comes along once in a career, thought the auctioneer. Satisfied, he walked slowly across to the lectern in the middle of the podium and, letting the tension grow, picked up his gavel and surveyed the excited faces looking back at him. He knew that a successful auction was as much about theatre as it was about having the strategy and experience to work the bidders in the right way. Suddenly, a hush fell across the auction room; a ripple of excitement and expectation washed over the silent crowd, realising that several million pounds were about to change hands.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ began the auctioneer, ‘it gives me great pleasure to present to you one of the most exciting art offerings of our time: a newly discovered—or more accurately—rediscovered painting by none other than Claude Monet, one of the undisputed masters of impressionism.’ The auctioneer paused, once again for effect, and then walked across to the easel standing next to him and carefully lifted the blue silk cover off the painting. ‘I give you Little Sparrow in the Garden: a masterpiece!’ The crowd gasped. Discreetly lit by subdued lighting from above, the brilliant colours of the spectacular painting dazzled and beguiled even the most critical eye.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, the painting has been carefully examined by several highly regarded experts. You will have seen their reports in the catalogue. Suffice it to say, they all agree that this is a genuine Monet, painted by the master towards the end of his long life, most likely around 1920, but before his cataracts were removed in 1923, which had a profound impact on how he saw colour and light. It would therefore appear that authenticity is beyond doubt.’ The auctioneer paused, letting this critically important statement find its mark. He adjusted his bowtie again, a nervous habit that helped him focus, and then continued.
‘This brings me to the next most important subject—provenance—always a somewhat delicate topic that is rarely clear-cut and precise, yet it is of great significance to potential buyers. Ladies and gentlemen, this is a “fortunate” painting. Why? Because it can tell you all about its extraordinary journey from the moment it left the hands that created it, until it ended up right here in front of you, for sale. You will have read all about that in your catalogues too. Yet, as you will soon see, there is more; much, much more.’
A master of creating anticipation and excitement, the auctioneer knew exactly how to appeal to potential bidders and how to hold their attention. He also knew that every gesture and every word counted, and one mistake could lift the curtain of fascination and burst the attention-bubble.
‘It isn’t often the case, ladies and gentlemen, that the true legal owner of a painting that has been lost for such a long time, and the person who found it and then returned it to its owner, can both provide a detailed account of all the relevant facts and circumstances that brought about this extraordinary reunion, and prove them. Yet, this is precisely the case here, ladies and gentlemen. The owner of the painting, Mr Benjamin Krakowski, and Mr Jack Rogan, who found it, are both present today and ready to answer any questions you may have. You will have noticed in your catalogues that as part of the painting’s provenance, an important document is also included in the sale: a diary.’
The auctioneer pointed to an elderly, well-dressed man sitting in the front row. ‘I would now like to invite Mr Krakowski to say a few words about the painting and its colourful—forgive the pun—history.’
All eyes were now upon the tall man with a striking shock of white hair who walked slowly up to the microphone. Benjamin Krakowski had presence. To most people attending the auction, he was no stranger; his fame preceded him. As a celebrated composer and violin virtuoso, he was well-known to most, which made his presence even more exciting and intriguing.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, this is a very important day for me. It brings back many memories; happy ones, but also very painful ones. As this painting belonged to my father and is about to be sold, I would like to share some of those memories with you, if I may. I believe that the painting’s story has to be told, not only because it forms part of that all-important provenance the auctioneer was talking about, but also out of respect for an extraordinary man who I loved.’
Krakowski paused, as memories of a painful past came flooding back with alarming clarity, and looked at something in the distance only he could see. ‘The best way to begin,’ he continued after a while, ‘is at the beginning. I will tell you why and when the painting was created, why it is called Little Sparrow in the Garden, and how it ended up with my father. I will also tell you when and where I saw it for the last time, before Mr Rogan returned it to me a year ago.’
Krakowski walked over to the painting and looked at it for a long moment, a distant, dreamy look clouding his face. Then, pointing to the painting, he said, ‘The young man here in the picture playing the violin at the edge of the lily pond is my father, Berenger Krakowski.’
Monet loved the outdoors. Enjoying the warm sun of a spring afternoon, he was painting in his garden as usual. The light reflected by the lily pond was perfect, and the flowers in full bloom, a delight to behold. Facing the pond, Monet stood back from his easel, closed one eye, and then applied some more blue paint to the brilliant sky in the picture.
‘He has arrived’, said the housekeeper, walking up to her master.
‘Already? Please bring him here; I’m almost finished for the afternoon.’ Monet put down his paintbrush, wiped his fingers with a linen cloth and watched a young man walking slowly towards him out of the shadows the trees cast across the flowerbeds. It was a delightful scene. Movement and light playing with shadows; Monet’s trained eye noticed such things and stored them away for later.
Berenger Krakowski looked at the old man with the long grey beard and straw hat standing at the edge of the pond. The invitation he received after his concert in Paris two days before had been a complete surprise. Claude Monet, the legendary artist, had invited him to afternoon tea in his garden. The invitation, however, had come with a request attached: Krakowski was to bring his famous violin with him.
‘Thank you for humouring an old man’, said Monet, extending his hand. ‘You are much younger than I imagined.’
‘It is an honour’, replied Berenger, shaking Monet’s hand.
‘I wanted to meet you for a long time. Ever since 1905, when you gave that extraordinary concert in Vienna everybody was talking about. I think you were about fourteen at the time, playing Paganini, right?’
‘And Count Esterhazy presented you with a famous violin, a Stradivarius, because yours had been stolen by gypsies the day before the concert, and because no one else in the empire could play Paganini like you. The papers were full of it.’
‘You have a good memory.’
Monet pointed to the violin case. ‘Is that it?’
‘May I see it?’
‘Of course.’ Berenger opened the violin case, took out his precious violin and held it up.
‘A thing of true beauty’, said Monet, admiring the instrument.
‘Its real beauty is in the sound’, replied Berenger.
‘Of course. You had a nickname.’
‘Yes, I did.’
‘I remember. They called you Little Sparrow.’
‘That’s right’, replied Berenger, laughing. ‘I haven’t heard that mentioned for a long time. So much has happened since … the war …’
‘The violin has a name, I believe?’ said Monet.
‘Yes. It’s called die Kaiserin: the Empress.’
‘How curious; why?’
Berenger ran his fingers gently along the smooth curves of the magnificent instrument, almost caressing it. ‘It was named after Kaiser Franz Joseph’s wife, Elisabeth, in 1867, the year of her coronation in Hungary’, he said. ‘She was a great beauty—very popular and much loved by her subjects. The violin belonged to a Hungarian noble family, the Esterhazys.’
‘What a wonderful story’, said Monet.
‘Yes, it is, but it has a sad ending.’
‘Kaiserin Elisabeth was stabbed to death by an anarchist in Geneva in 1898. Beauty is fragile and fleeting. It is said that since then, the violin has been weeping. It’s all in the sound …’
Monet looked at the young man’s face, illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. Sad eyes, he thought. He knows suffering. ‘Would you mind playing something for me?’
‘Not at all. What would you like to hear?’
‘I leave it up to you.’
Berenger lifted the violin to his chin, closed his eyes and began to play.
Transported by Paganini’s stunning violin concerto, which showed off Berenger’s virtuosity to perfection, Monet reached for his paintbrush and looked at the young man standing at the edge of the lily pond. It was a bitter-sweet moment of irresistible beauty he wanted to capture. With a few bold strokes, he inserted Berenger and his violin into the painting, immortalising both with his art.
Berenger continued to play and Monet continued to paint until the sun went down, and the light faded. Satisfied, Monet stepped back and lifted the painting off the easel. ‘This is for you: Little Sparrow in the Garden’, he said, and presented the painting to his guest.
‘This is how the painting got its name: Little Sparrow in the Garden,’ Krakowski told his spellbound audience, ‘and became one of my father’s two most treasured possessions. The other was the violin in the painting, the Empress. Looking back, I can see they were important reminders of a carefree, happier time. Little Sparrow in the Garden always had pride of place in our home, and on occasion, my mother would affectionately call my father Little Sparrow.’ Krakowski paused, steeling himself for what was to come.
He then talked about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943, the arrest, and the family’s deportation to Auschwitz. ‘I saw the painting for the last time as we left the ruins of our home in the ghetto and were taken by the SS to the train station; final destination, Auschwitz. After that, my life changed forever. The unspeakable horror that followed blurred all of my memories of the past, and I forgot all about the painting and our life in Warsaw. It all seemed distant and irrelevant.’
Krakowski paused, collecting his thoughts, and then, his voice barely audible as if he could only whisper what he was about to reveal, ‘My mother and sister were sent to the gas chamber first. My father followed sometime later. My brother David was killed during an unsuccessful escape attempt. I survived…’
Krakowski turned towards the painting and looked at it as if to reassure himself that it was really there, and not just something haunting his imagination. Then, banishing the memories of that painful past, he faced his audience again and continued.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, I’m not telling you all this only to establish the provenance of the painting. There is another, far more compelling reason, and it has to do with Dr Rosen here.’ Krakowski pointed to an elegant lady sitting in the front row. ‘I’m sure Dr Rosen and her foundation are well-known to most of you. Her outstanding work in the Third World to help the destitute and the sick, the forgotten and the weak with no voice, has only recently made headlines again around the world. She almost lost her life in Somalia after uncovering a human catastrophe. The entire proceeds of this sale will be donated to the Rosen Foundation in memory of my family.’ Then he added quietly, ‘Something good and noble can rise out of tragedy and the callous brutality of man.’
Spontaneous applause erupted, and many in the audience rose to their feet, honouring a courageous man unafraid to face a painful past and share it with strangers.
The auctioneer was delighted. Tonight, celebrities were doing the heavy lifting, and all he had to do was introduce them, and then step back and give them a free hand. Krakowski had been a hit, just as he had expected. The response from the audience had surpassed expectations, and a new element had just entered the bidding about to start: philanthropy. This would further loosen the purse strings, as bidders were less reluctant to pay a premium when a charitable cause was involved. And there was still more to come. It was time to introduce the trump card of the evening: Jack Rogan, the famous author and storyteller, was ready to weave his magic.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, wouldn’t it be helpful to know what happened to the painting after all that?’ began the auctioneer once the applause had died down and Krakowski had returned to his seat. ‘Where has it been during the past seventy years? Well, there is someone who can answer that question: Mr Jack Rogan.’
The auctioneer then introduced Rogan and spoke briefly about the phenomenal success of his books, especially Dental Gold and Other Horrors, which had catapulted him onto the world stage and made him a famous author and Time magazine’s Person of the Year.
Jack Rogan loved nothing more than an attentive audience. A gifted public speaker with an engaging manner, he soon had everyone in the room mesmerised and under his spell.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, you just heard the auctioneer ask that all-important question: where has the painting been during the past seventy years? Intriguing, isn’t it? Especially after what Mr Krakowski has just told us. Well, I can answer that question for you.’ Rogan held up what looked like a small notebook. ‘The answers are all in here, in the Francis diary. As you know, I’m a storyteller. So, allow me to tell you a story. And what a story it is! It’s worthy of a book on its own. Who knows … perhaps one day’, teased Rogan. ‘But for now, ladies and gentlemen, we have to go on a journey together. We have to travel back thirty years to a remote cattle station in Australia, and the worst drought in a generation …’
Exhausted, the horses could barely move. The heat was unbearable and the cattle were dying. Choking on the dust, the three men riding slowly along the ridge looked dejected and defeated as the relentless outback sun sucked the life out of the parched, cracked earth, turning the meagre pastures into dust bowls. The few native creatures still alive were hiding underground and only ventured outside during the night.
The man at the front pulled up his horse and looked across the plain, shimmering in the glare of the searing midday sun. ‘I don’t know how much longer we can keep going’, he said, wiping his neck with a red handkerchief. ‘Another ten dead this morning’, he added, his voice filled with sadness. ‘There’s no point … It’s time to get out the rifles …’
‘We’ll get through this, Dad,’ said young Jack, ‘you’ll see.’
The optimism of youth and inexperience, thought the man, looking affectionately at his son. He shook his head, but didn’t have the heart to contradict him.
‘He’s right,’ said Gurrul, the last remaining Aboriginal drover, ‘we will.’ With most of the cattle dead or dying, all the other stockmen had been dismissed long ago. Gurrul, an Aboriginal elder, had known Jack all his life, and was part of the Rogan family. Jack looked gratefully at his friend. He loved that familiar face. Furrowed like the parched earth all around them and with deep creases and wrinkles crisscrossing the forehead, it looked as if it could hold three days’ rain. But what he loved most were the old man’s eyes, radiating intelligence and kindness.
Gurrul knew that watching cattle die day after day was heartbreaking. He also knew that worse was to come: shooting the weak survivors to end their pitiful suffering without hope. He could see that the father’s despair was having a devastating effect on his son. Seventeen was a vulnerable age, and a drought like this could break grown men three times the boy’s age. Gurrul had been through it all before, and was determined to shield Jack from the pain of seeing the family’s livelihood reduced to rotting carcasses and bleached bones. Somehow, he had to get him away from all this for a while, before it was too late and the inevitable slaughter began. Fortunately, he knew exactly how do to just that.
On the way back to the homestead, Gurrul fell in beside his boss. ‘I hear that the brothers at the Coberg Mission are looking for labourers,’ he said, ‘to help them renovate the classrooms and put a new roof on the chapel …’
‘What’s on your mind?’
‘I was thinking of Jack … he’s good with his hands.’
For a while the two men rode along in silence. ‘I know what you’re getting at’, said Jack’s father. ‘Good idea.’
‘I could take him over to the Mission in the morning, and then meet you to finish the job …’ he added, lowering his voice.
Jack’s father looked gratefully at the old man. ‘Thank you, my friend; let’s do that’, he said, relieved.
Brother Francis, one of the senior missionaries, was in charge of the building works. He watched Jack carry the heavy beams up the ladder and lower them carefully into the correct slots. He’s strong and keen to learn, thought Brother Francis. What he lacks in experience, he makes up in enthusiasm. The plight of the cattlemen all around them was well-known to the missionaries and they were keen to help the best way they could. Providing some employment with full board and a little money was worth a lot during difficult times.
Set up after the First World War by German missionaries to educate Aboriginal children, the Coberg Mission had an excellent reputation. Most of the teaching was done by the sisters. The brothers worked in the fields, looked after the livestock and maintained the buildings, but they also taught practical skills such as carpentry and farming. The Mission was virtually self-sufficient, and the little that was needed and could not be produced, was purchased with donations and monies sent by the Order from faraway Germany. It was a successful division of tasks that had worked well for a long time.
Over the years, the missionaries had earned the trust of the local Aboriginals, who left their children in their care during the school term to be educated while they went ‘bush’. Walkabout had been the way of life of their revered ancestors since the Dreamtime, and the older generation still followed this age-old tradition.
However, during the nineteen-seventies, numbers began to decline rapidly in the missionary ranks. The number of headstones in the little cemetery next to the chapel was increasing faster than the seats occupied by new arrivals around the refractory table. For years there had been virtually no new missionaries, and the average age of those remaining was well above seventy. The days of the Coberg Mission were numbered, and the sisters and brothers knew it. Times were changing. They were content to live out their lives in this harsh new country, far away from the places they used to call home, and the people they once held dear. Every refuge has its price.
Always eager to please and with a sunny nature and agile mind, Jack slipped easily into the mission routine. Nothing was too much trouble for him. Helping the sisters in the morning to light the cooking fires before sunrise, or preparing the tools and provisions for a day of drudgery in the fields for the brothers, Jack was always ready to crack a joke and lend a helping hand.
In the evening, he would sit around the refractory table with the brothers to share the evening meal. This was his favourite time of the day. Fascinated by the stories told after dinner—mainly about the war, because most of the brothers had been soldiers—he listened in awe to stories about battles in North Africa, U-boat raids in the Atlantic, Messerschmitt dogfights over Berlin, and carpet bombing in Dresden. To an impressionable seventeen-year-old boy who had grown up on a remote cattle station in outback Queensland, this all sounded very exciting, the romance of adventure masking the tragedy and suffering that stood behind all of the stories, like ghosts of a bloody past.
At first Jack didn’t notice the obvious hierarchy and discipline among the brothers. There appeared to be a strict, almost military chain of command governing everything they did. Jack put this down to how missionaries operated and how a religious order worked. It wasn’t until much later that he realised there was much more to it than that, and it had nothing to do with religion or missionary life.
Impressed by Jack’s sparkling intelligence and inquisitive nature—he appeared interested in just about everything and was eager to learn—Brother Francis took Jack under his wing. They sat next to each other during meals, worked on the chapel roof together, went for walks before dinner and sat on the veranda, talking, long after everyone had gone to bed. At seventy-seven, Brother Francis’ life was almost behind him, but Jack’s was just beginning. Despite this generational gap, their mutual respect had developed into a deep friendship.
Brother Francis was a wonderful storyteller, and without knowing it at the time, this was the beginning of Jack’s fascination with storytelling that would dominate his entire life. They spoke about history and music, astronomy and warfare, philosophy and religion, and the cruelty of man, which often saw them turning in well after midnight. After that, Jack would lie on his swag, looking up at the stars blazing above. Unable to sleep and with his head spinning, he would go over the stories Brother Francis had told him until it was almost time to get up and face another day.
Jack stayed at the mission for three months. By the time Gurrul came to collect him and take him home, Jack the boy had matured into a young man with a dream.
‘I am telling you all this, ladies and gentlemen,’ said Jack, addressing the spellbound audience in the auction room, ‘because it will help you understand what happened next. I returned home to a cattle station without cattle, a desperate father who drank to avoid going mad, and a mother at the end of her tether—the bank manager had just refused to further extend credit to an enterprise without foreseeable prospects. But six months later, my family was thrown a lifeline from an unexpected quarter. I received a note from the Coberg Mission: Brother Francis had passed away. But that wasn’t all. He had made me his heir. After the funeral, I was handed a note that Brother Francis had written just before he died.’ Jack reached into his pocket and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, creased around the edges. ‘This is it here’, he continued. ‘Allow me to read it to you:
By the time you read this, I will be in the Good Lord’s hands. I realise we knew each other for only a short time, but the length of days has nothing to do with friendship. There are many things about me and my past you don’t know, and when you do find out, you will be shocked and no doubt disappointed. Words cannot express the regret I have felt over the years for the things I have done.
As a dying man and your friend, I ask you to help me right a great wrong. I know this is a big ask, but there is no time left to explain it all. The best I can do is point you in the right direction and hope you will one day grant me this last wish. Just before I left Europe after the war, I buried something in a cemetery. If you follow the instructions on the back of this note, you will find all the answers, and a lot more …
You are the son I never had.
Your loving friend,
Jack held up the note. ‘On the back here is a diagram of a cemetery in Berchtesgaden, a village in Bavaria,’ said Jack, ‘with directions pointing to a particular grave.’
Jack paused, folded the note along its well-worn creases and slipped it into his pocket. ‘Life rarely moves in a straight line’, he continued. ‘It has taken me more than twenty years to find those answers, and when I finally did—guided by destiny and fate—they were as astonishing as they were surprising. Apart from this curious note, Brother Francis left me a tidy sum, which saved my family from ruin and allowed me to follow my dream.
‘There was nothing left for me at home; no future. So I left, went to Brisbane and began working for a small newspaper. It was the beginning of my career as a journalist, and the beginning of a new life and a long journey that would ultimately allow me to grant Brother Francis’ last wish. This journey has almost reached its destination, right here, and you, ladies and gentlemen, are now all part of that journey.
‘However, to fully understand how this has come about, we have to first visit a little cemetery in Bavaria.’
The snow had come early that year, and everyone was looking forward to a white Christmas. The little walled cemetery next to the Franziskaner Kirche in the middle of the picturesque village looked like something out of a fairy-tale. Almost all the graves had been decorated with small Christmas trees and candles as tradition demanded. Relatives stood around some of the graves and remembered loved ones long departed, before going into church to say a prayer and light a candle.
Jack pulled up his collar, looked at the diagram in his gloved hand and tried to orientate himself. The heavy snow cover made this difficult, but at least he had a name: Berghofer, Johann and Elfriede. Johann died in 1932, and Elfriede eight years later. After counting the rows a second time, Jack had narrowed it down to two. Walking slowly along the silent rows, he looked at the names on the headstones, the large snowflakes tickling his face.
Earlier that year, Jack had been investigating a high-ranking Nazi war criminal, and was writing a book—Dental Gold and Other Horrors—about the controversial trial that followed. While this was a totally unrelated matter at the time, Jack found himself in the vicinity of Berchtesgaden as part of his research for the book.
Berchtesgaden, with its breathtakingly beautiful alpine scenery, had a notorious past. During the war, Hitler had spent a lot of time in his mountain fortress on the Obersalzberg above Berchtesgaden, in the stunning Kehlsteinhaus—the famous Eagle’s Nest—presented to him on his fiftieth birthday by the Nazi Party.
Over the years, Jack had forgotten all about Brother Francis and his cryptic note, considering it fanciful or a long shot at best, but the trial and his recent research had somehow made him think of Brother Francis and his kindness and generosity when he had needed it most. A dying man’s wish is something sacred, thought Jack, feeling good about finally being able to do something to honour that wish.
He had almost walked to the end of the second row, when he saw it: Johann Berghofer Gebor: 1868, and below, Gestor: 1932.
My God, this is it, thought Jack, reading the inscription on the headstone a second time. Exactly as shown on the diagram. Who would have believed it! By now the visitors had left, and Jack found himself alone in the deserted cemetery, with the organ music and singing drifting across from the church the only sound intruding into the stillness of the night. Most of the candles had gone out and it was almost dark, with snowflakes descending like a blanket of peace upon the silent graves.
According to the diagram, a small piece of marble in front of the headstone could be removed. Whatever Jack was supposed to find was apparently buried underneath it. Jack knelt down, pulled out his Swiss army knife and began to loosen the rectangular slab. To his surprise, it began to move quite easily, and soon he was able to lift it up, exposing a shallow little pit below. Holding his breath, Jack peered inside, not really expecting to find anything. Yet there was something. A metal box, he thought, reaching into the pit, his hands shaking.
Jack paused again, collecting his thoughts. He ran his fingers through his hair and looked wistfully at Krakowski sitting in the front row. ‘What I found in that metal box—wrapped tightly in some thick, waterproof material—was this…’ Jack held up the little notebook he had shown his audience before. ‘Brother Francis’ diary. But this wasn’t all’, continued Jack, enjoying himself. ‘There was one more important item in the box: a key. As it turned out, a very special and unique key.’ Jack held up a photograph. ‘I can only show a picture of it, because the original had to be returned to where it belonged; an extraordinary place in the heart of Vienna. But I will tell you more about this later.
‘As you know, ladies and gentlemen, the Francis diary forms part of the sale, and with good reason. It answers all the questions and explains everything, but more importantly, it ultimately led me not only to the painting itself, but to this man,’ Rogan pointed to Krakowski, ‘its rightful owner.’
A wave of excitement and anticipation washed over the spellbound crowd, who were following Jack’s story with interest and hanging on his every word.
‘But how all this came about is quite a story in itself that also has to be told. The journey of the painting would be incomplete without it, and it all began on a cold winter’s day in Warsaw. Inspector Jana Gonski, an Australian Federal Police officer, and I were following the trail of a Nazi war criminal who was being prosecuted in Australia. The trail pointed us to Jakob Finkelstein, a colourful character known as The Watchmaker of Warsaw. Without him and what he told us, we wouldn’t be here, and this extraordinary painting would most likely have been lost forever. This is what happened…’
Jana Gonski knew she was lost. Warsaw in winter was grey, damp and freezing and the empty cobblestoned backstreets all looked the same. She walked up to an old woman at a bus stop and asked for directions. Jana’s childhood Polish was a little rusty, but adequate. When she finally found the tiny shop it was almost dark. ‘Jakob Finkelstein—Watchmaker’, said the faded sign above the door. A torn blind covered the narrow shop window; there was no light inside. A nauseating smell of boiled cabbage and sewage filled the air. Jana pulled the brass bell knob next to the door. She could hear a bell ringing in the back of the shop but nothing happened. She tried the bell again.
‘Yes, yes I’m coming’, a voice called out from inside. Someone fumbled with a reluctant key in the lock. Finally, the door opened with a creak and a small, wizened old man squinted at Jana through thick glasses. ‘I’m closed; can’t you see? I’m eating dinner. What do you want?’ said Finkelstein gruffly. Jana smiled at him and mentioned the name of the American GI who had written a book about the musicians of Auschwitz. The old man’s demeanour changed abruptly. ‘Don’t just stand there; come in’, he said. Stepping aside, he pointed down a dark corridor leading to the back of the shop.
The room at the back was Finkelstein’s world. The walls were covered with all kinds of clocks. Old Viennas were busily ticking next to elaborately carved cuckoo clocks from the Black Forest. Marble mantle clocks and bracket clocks of all shapes and sizes lined the shelves. In the far corner of the room, an elegant English mahogany grandfather clock was rubbing shoulders with an old Dutch lantern clock, which had once belonged to a sea captain. The dimly lit room was full of movement and sound. Fascinating shadows crept along the walls, following polished brass pendulums in mesmerising unison. The regular tick-tock of a hundred intricate mechanisms was deafening.
Finkelstein lived in the past, surrounded by his treasures—each reminding him of former customers. He could still remember all their names, yet he could barely recall the name of someone he met only the day before. Most of the clocks had been brought to Finkelstein for safekeeping during the war. Unlike their unfortunate—predominantly Jewish—owners, the clocks survived the Holocaust, securely hidden in the spacious cellar beneath his shop.
‘My faithful friends’, explained Finkelstein, pointing to the clocks. ‘They are all special, but I do have my favourites of course. Take this one for instance’, he continued, running his hands affectionately along the gleaming mahogany case of a tall grandfather clock. ‘Made in Glasgow in 1820; magnificent workmanship. It took me three weeks to repair it. It was very difficult. It needed new parts. I make all the parts myself, you know’, he explained. Jana smiled at him. ‘It belonged to Professor Horowitz, a great man. Ah, and over here I have something really special. Come, look.’ Jana followed the strange little man to his workbench. He pointed to an exquisite porcelain table clock on the shelf above. ‘Meissen china; the best. It once stood in King Ludwig’s dining room in Neuschwanstein. Wait until it chimes—superb.’ Finkelstein became quite animated and began to stroke the tip of his white goatee. ‘Forgive me, but I can see you didn’t come here to talk about my clocks.’ He motioned towards a threadbare sofa next to the workbench. ‘Please, take a seat.’ Jana glanced at the steaming bowl of evil-smelling broth on the bench and sat down. ‘Would you like some? It’s borscht; I made it myself.’ Jana declined politely. Finkelstein climbed onto his stool in front of the bench and continued to eat his dinner. ‘If it’s not clocks, then what brings you here?’
Finkelstein put down his spoon and looked wistfully at Jana through his thick glasses. ‘It never really goes away, does it?’ he said at last, wiping his mouth with the back of his shaking hand. ‘It just goes on; the ghosts are still with us.’
‘You were playing in the camp orchestra until the end, I’m told.’
Finkelstein nodded, a haunted look clouding his wrinkled face. ‘They made us play at the camp entrance when the trains arrived. Mainly cheerful Viennese music, would you believe. A polka to sweeten the march to the gas chamber. Terrible. The things one did to stay alive…’ Finkelstein shook his head. ‘But I was still a young man then, full of hope. One of the lucky ones, I thought at the time. I was sent to Auschwitz with my wife and two small daughters soon after the ghetto revolt in forty-three. The orchestra needed another musician; my clarinet saved my life. I thought it would save theirs as well’, he added sadly. ‘It didn’t.’
Suddenly, an extraordinary cacophony of sound filled the room. The clocks announced the hour with an exotic melange of whistles and bells, hooting owls and chipper cuckoos, sonorous gongs, lullabies and folk tunes. It was seven o’ clock.
‘No matter how hard I try, I can never quite get them to do it all on time’, shouted Finkelstein. ‘There are always a few slow ones.’ The chiming went on for several minutes until the last of the stragglers finally caught up.
Jana opened her handbag and pulled out the photograph. ‘Do you recognise this man?’ she asked, pointing to the German officer in the photo.
Finkelstein took off his glasses, adjusted the lamp on the bench and pressed his round watchmaker’s magnifying glass to his right eye. He examined the photograph for a long time and Jana noticed that he kept coming back to the dog in the picture.
‘Do I recognise this man?’ repeated Finkelstein, putting down his magnifying glass. ‘Strictly speaking, no. As you can see, his face is barely visible under the visor of his cap.’ He pointed to the officer’s head. ‘Yet, there’s something familiar about him. His stance, his arrogance; I can’t really explain it. And then of course, there’s the dog…’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, there was this German officer who visited the camp regularly. He used to come to the train station with his dog, and often spoke to us about music before the trains arrived and the selections were made. He was always looking for new arrivals with certain special skills. They were taken to another camp close by. He had a dog just like this one.’ Finkelstein pointed to the snarling beast in the photo. Jana recognised echoes of Miss Abramowitz’s recollections. Holding her breath, she leaned forward. ‘The dog had an unusual metal collar with an inscription on it’, he explained.
‘What inscription?’ Jana asked hoarsely.
‘Ah, yes, I do remember now: Arbeit macht frei. Crazy. We didn’t know what to make of it. Typical SS, they were all mad.’
Jana could barely contain her excitement. ‘Is there anything else you can remember about him?’ she asked hopefully.
‘Not really. It was a long time ago and my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’m afraid.’ Finkelstein shrugged, and handed the photograph back to Jana.
‘Do you know of anyone else who might?’ she asked casually, almost as an afterthought.
‘Strange you should ask; I was just thinking the same thing… There was this musician at the Auschwitz remembrance service—you know, the fiftieth anniversary of the camp’s liberation. I was there.’
‘What about him?’
‘Well, as a young boy he used to play in the camp orchestra with his father. Perhaps he can remember something. You see, he survived—his father didn’t. I spoke to him afterwards. It was all very moving.’
‘Did you recognise him?’
‘No, but I did remember his father. He was a well-known violin virtuoso and music teacher right here in Warsaw before the war.’
‘What was his name?’
‘I knew you would ask that. I’m sorry, but I just can’t remember right now’, said Finkelstein apologetically. ‘I’m rather bad with names…’
‘But you must!’ Jana almost shouted, unable to control her frustration. She put her hand on the old man’s shoulder. He shook his head sadly. Embarrassed, Jana withdrew her hand.
‘Wait, there is someone who might know’, said Finkelstein, waving his finger at Jana. ‘My friend Moritz was with me at the liberation ceremony. We spoke a lot about it at the time; he might remember the name.’
‘Where’s your friend?’
‘He lives close by; we play chess almost every day. I will ask him in the morning. Why don’t you come back tomorrow and we’ll see …’
‘When I returned to Finkelstein’s shop with Jana Gonski the next morning,’ continued Jack, ‘we found the old man lying face down, the back of his skull crushed. On the floor next to his head was a piece of marble covered in blood. All the clocks in the ransacked room had been smashed to pieces. The floor was littered with broken glass, twisted pendulums, dented brass weights, steel springs and splinters of wood. Finkelstein had been murdered during the night. Why it had happened was a separate, complicated matter linked to our investigation, but we managed to discover the name he couldn’t remember the night before. The name was Benjamin Krakowski, a vital lead in our case.’ Jack paused, letting this remarkable revelation find its mark.
‘Little did I know at the time,’ said Jack, speaking softly, ‘that a few months later, I would come across that name again in a totally unrelated matter,’ Jack held up the little notebook, ‘in here, in Brother Francis’ diary. And little did I know at the time what that would lead to, and how. Destiny, and fate—’
A young woman in the audience held up her hand.
‘Please’, said Jack, grateful for the interruption.
‘Cecilia Crawford, New York Times’, said the woman, standing up. ‘You may not remember, but I spoke to you in New York after the release of your book, Dental Gold and Other Horrors—’
Jack smiled. How could I forget, he thought, remembering the stunning, well-informed reporter who had given him a polite grilling about his book. ‘I do remember,’ interrupted Jack. ‘The press conference in Central Park.’
‘Yes’, replied the woman, obviously pleased. ‘Are you suggesting that Mr Krakowski here is the same man who features in your book and was the key witness in the trial of Sir Eric Newman, alias Sturmbannfuehrer Wolfgang Steinberger, the notorious Nazi war criminal?’
‘I know this may be difficult to accept, but yes, he’s the same man.’
Crawford shook her head and sat down.
‘As you can imagine,’ continued Jack, ‘I hurried back to my hotel room in Berchtesgaden to examine what I had just found. Despite the metal box and the waterproof wrapping, it soon became apparent that the diary had been significantly damaged. Not only was the small, spidery handwriting difficult to decipher, but the ink had almost completely faded away in certain places, and water damage had destroyed several pages.
‘My limited German was totally inadequate to make sense of what was left, so I had the text translated by an expert. Slowly, line by line, I began to piece together an extraordinary story about an interesting, complex man. It was the beginning of an exciting journey of discovery with many twists and turns that finally brought us right here, to this very moment.
‘It all began in 1939, with the first entry.’ Jack held up a sheet of paper. ‘I have the translation right here’, he said. ‘Let me read it to you: Today, at 10 a.m., I joined the Nazi Party. A glorious future awaits Germany, and I look forward with pride to my contribution to my country’s destiny. Potent words indeed, ladies and gentlemen, especially in light of what was to come.
‘But before going any further, I must point out something significant that may have a bearing on everything I’m telling you. The true identity of the author of this diary is not known. There is no name or any other form of identification, or clue in the text. There is only one link: Brother Francis. However, I do believe it is reasonable to assume that he is the author, and if you will allow me, I would like to proceed on that basis.
‘The Coberg Mission closed down many years ago and I was unable to discover who Brother Francis really was. However, in hindsight, it has become clear to me that the brothers I met at the mission all those years ago were all high-ranking SS officers who had joined the Order to escape Germany after the war under a cloak of protection provided by the Church. The discipline I had observed at the mission as a boy wasn’t monastic, it was military.
‘According to the diary, soon after joining the Nazi Party, Brother Francis joined the SS and advanced rapidly through the ranks. He even became a member of the notorious Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s personal bodyguard, and spent a lot of time on the Obersalzberg near Berchtesgaden, close to Hitler’s inner circle of power. What is particularly relevant to our story here is the fact that he was one of the senior SS officers in charge of putting down the Warsaw Ghetto revolt in 1943.
‘Until the middle of 1944, the tone of the entries is very enthusiastic, even bombastic about what was happening in Germany. The atrocities, the defeats, the disasters are all seen as part of a bigger picture: the struggle of the glorious Reich, destined for victory.
‘However, towards the end of 1944, something significant must have occurred, because things begin to change—dramatically. Suddenly, there is a drastic shift in the tone of the entries. Blind optimism and unquestioning loyalty and belief are replaced by doubt and fear. Some of the entries are almost incoherent and often written days, if not weeks after the event. Entries become fewer and fewer, the gaps wider. By Christmas, they cease altogether; nothing until January 1945, only silence.
‘Then, on the twenty-eighth of January, something curious happens; a writing frenzy. Obviously jotted down in a great hurry—the changes in the handwriting support this—the entries deal with only one subject: the Warsaw Ghetto revolt of 1943 and the part played by the author—let’s call him Francis—in crushing it. He describes the brutality and the atrocities in graphic detail and the tone is one of regret and despair. However, one particular event stands out, and he deals with it over and over as if putting down what had happened on paper could make it undone. The event? Sending the Krakowski family to a concentration camp to face certain death, and then stealing the only thing of value left behind in their miserable home: a painting.’
Jack paused again and looked at the audience, the stunned expressions on many of the faces a clear indication that this surprising revelation had found its mark.
‘So why not just get rid of this painting that appears to have caused so much soul-searching and regret and be done with it? Why single out this particular incident, which would have been one of many? I thought a lot about this, and the most plausible explanation I could come up with was this: before joining the Nazi Party, Francis was an art teacher in Munich. The diary is clear about this. He knew and appreciated art, and therefore recognised the true significance and value of this painting. It resonates with him. That is why he can’t just dispose of it, and in January 1945, he still has the painting,’ continued Jack, ‘only by now it has become a burden, an accusing reminder of what he has done.
‘He sinks deeper and deeper into despair and becomes obsessed with one particular subject: returning the painting to where it belongs; its rightful owner. Of course this makes no sense in light of what has happened, but he is no longer rational or coherent, only obsessed. It is as if the salvation of his tortured soul depends on this.
‘Then suddenly, the entries stop again, only to resume once more for the last time in June 1945. Francis is in Vienna, on the run. The war is over and the Russians have occupied the city. They are relentlessly hunting down the few armed combatants still roaming the ruins. To avoid being captured, Francis is hiding among the dead, literally. The place he has chosen is as ingenious as it is unique, and as it turns out, it serves him well: the magnificent Imperial Crypt, beneath the Capuchin Church on the Neue Markt, the final resting place of the German and Austrian emperors. It is almost certain that the last entries in the diary were written in the crypt, and what transpired there is perhaps the most astonishing and intriguing aspect of this entire story.
‘After the Francis diary had been translated and I finished piecing the entries together, which took quite some time, I went to Vienna and visited that extraordinary crypt under the Capuchin Church. Let me tell you why …’
Jack turned up the collar of his coat, pulled a street map out of his pocket and began to orientate himself, the numbing cold making his fingers stiff and clumsy. It must be right here, he thought, looking across the road at a small church of insignificant appearance. He had expected something grander, bearing in mind what was located under the Capuchin Church: the imperial vaults, within the stunning family crypt of the Hapsburgs. Jack remembered the pamphlet he had downloaded earlier, pulled it out from his other pocket and began to read:
The first Capuchin fathers came to Vienna in 1599, and in 1617 the wife of Emperor Matthias, Empress Anna, granted the Capuchins a church that was to become the burial site for her and her husband. The foundation stone of the church was laid in 1622, not far from the house in which Joseph Haydn composed the Austrian imperial national anthem many years later.
Over the next three hundred and fifty years, the crypt was modified and expanded many times by emperors who wore the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, the Austrian imperial crown, and the Hungarian crown of St. Stephen. Today, it is perhaps the most significant and unique burial chamber in the world.
What makes the Imperial Crypt so unique is the fact that with one exception, all one hundred and forty-five persons buried there belong to one family, the Hapsburgs, and include twelve emperors and seventeen empresses. As a depository of European history, it is unparalleled.
As tradition demanded, most of them were embalmed after dissection. Their brains, innards and eyes were placed in copper urns and laid to rest in the Duke’s Crypt in St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the famous Stephansdom. Their hearts, however, were placed in silver jars and taken to the ‘Hearts Crypt’ of St. Augustine’s in Vienna.
Open to the public, the crypt is one of the little hidden gems of Vienna. A stairway to the right of the church leads down into the crypt below.
Jack was early. This was quite intentional as he wanted to arrive ahead of the crowds. Before entering the Hapsburg necropolis, he unfolded the relevant pages of the Francis diary he had copied and, taking a deep breath, entered the crypt.
Nothing could have prepared him for what was waiting inside. Rows of magnificent sarcophagi, each a masterpiece of artistry and craftsmanship, lined the walls of the crowded burial chambers, the subdued lighting making the marble, bronze and silver gleam, and giving the sculptures and reliefs decorating the sarcophagi an almost lifelike glow. Grinning skulls with crowns, weeping angels, upturned hourglasses, imperial coats of arms, lanterns, dragonflies and candles—potent symbols one and all—greeted the visitor with messages of the fleeting fragility of life, and the certainty of death. A cold shiver raced down Jack’s spine as he found himself momentarily alone with the famous dead who had ruled one of the greatest European empires for centuries.
Jack steadied himself and reread the entry he had highlighted in the diary and knew almost by heart:
By now the Russians had complete control of the city, and the Capuchins who had given me shelter asked me to leave because they were afraid of the consequences of harbouring a dangerous fugitive like me. I was no longer safe and knew I had to leave the painting behind. I asked one of the Capuchin fathers for advice. He suggested I hide the painting in one of the sarcophagi. An excellent solution, I thought at the time. We unlocked one of the chests with an elaborate key. Together, we opened the heavy lid, and I placed the painting on top of the wooden coffin containing the embalmed body of the deceased. To my surprise, the father handed me the key.
[Here it comes, _]thought Jack;[ damn! _]The next page began with a description of the sarcophagus, but the writing had been almost completely destroyed by water damage, as was the rest of the diary. Jack ran a trembling finger along the top line that was still legible: [_the simple sarcophagus stands on a podium and is decorated with … _]This was the last legible entry in the diary and there was no additional information or clue as to the identity of the deceased.
Jack looked at the gleaming rows of sarcophagi, a wry smile creasing his face. Where are you? he pondered walking slowly from chamber to chamber, each filled with the burial monuments of emperors and empresses long gone and faded into the pages of history.
Jack realised that without additional information it would be impossible to identify the sarcophagus containing the painting. The only thing left was the key. He reached into his pocket, pulled out the key he had found in the grave in Berchtesgaden, and held it up. To which one do you belong? he asked himself, walking slowly from one monument to the other, each protected by an elaborate alarm system. It soon became obvious that a different approach was needed.
‘I went to see the custodian of the crypt later that day’, said Jack, addressing his audience. ‘I told him about the Francis diary and the extraordinary story of the painting. I then showed him the key. He confirmed that it certainly looked like one of the many coffin keys belonging to the crypt, but he was otherwise noncommittal. Behind the veneer of Austrian politeness, he appeared displeased, annoyed even, about the whole affair. However, he did indicate that for every sarcophagus there are two keys. The Capuchin fathers are the custodians of one, the other is kept in the spiritual treasury chamber in the Hofburg.’ Jack paused, collecting his thoughts.
‘He then showed me politely to the door. On the way out he told me that all the keys kept by the Capuchins were accounted for, but he couldn’t comment about the keys kept at the Hofburg. His parting words of advice were that it would be best if I were to forget all about this, as opening one of the sarcophagi on some kind of treasure hunt, however intriguing, was unthinkable.
‘I had to leave Vienna the next day and that’s where matters rested until I contacted Mr Krakowski in London. It was time to tell him all about this extraordinary story and see what he had to say about it, and what he suggested we should do.’
Jack looked at the auctioneer standing next to him. ‘What happened next is another remarkable piece of this puzzle, and if we haven’t exhausted the patience of everyone here, it would be best if Mr Krakowski were to tell you about it.’
Smiling, the auctioneer stepped forward. He had carefully watched the potential bidders sitting in front of him and gauged their reaction. He was convinced that they were as fascinated and intrigued by Jack’s story as he was, and were eager to learn more. He therefore had no hesitation in inviting Benjamin Krakowski back to the podium.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ began Krakowski quietly, ‘when Mr Rogan contacted me in London and showed me the Francis diary, I found it difficult to come to terms with what was happening. The painful past I had tried so hard to put behind me was once again closing in. Five years earlier, we had exhumed my brother’s body from a mass grave in Austria as part of the prosecution of a notorious Nazi war criminal. However, the information contained in the diary was not only convincing; it left no doubt about the veracity of what we were dealing with. Once again, I was swept up by destiny and fate, irresistibly. Needless to say, I couldn’t just walk away from all this, tempting as it was at the time. I owed it to my murdered family to investigate the matter further.
‘Once again, fate intervened. I was due to give a concert in Vienna a month after Mr Rogan’s visit, and we agreed to meet there and see what could be done. We had one valuable contact in Vienna, Dr Otto Gruber, who had assisted us in locating the Nazi mass grave. Dr Gruber, a high-ranking public servant, had excellent connections in high places. As it turned out, Dr Gruber came up with an ingenious plan to help us.
‘My concert in Vienna had received a great deal of publicity. This was in no small part due to the fact that I would be bringing the Empress, my famous violin, with me. Those of you who have read Mr Rogan’s book, Dental Gold and Other Horrors, would be familiar with the violin’s turbulent history. The Empress is named after Empress Elisabeth, affectionately known as Sisi, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. Both she and her husband are buried in the Imperial Crypt.
‘Sisi is without doubt the most famous Hapsburg in Vienna today. Visitors are bombarded with information and anecdotes about this famous woman and her tragic life. In short, Vienna has made her a tourist and publicity icon, and Dr Gruber came up with a cunning idea to exploit this and enlist the help and cooperation of the authorities to assist us in our search for the sarcophagus fitting the key. He suggested that after the concert, I give a small solo performance in the Imperial Crypt. I would be playing my famous violin, the Empress, in homage to Sisi.
‘As it turned out, this was embraced by the city fathers with great enthusiasm, and thirty or so hand-picked guests, including the president of Austria, were invited. This unique event was a huge success, and turned into a moving tribute to one of Austria’s most loved monarchs. The papers around the country carried the story on the front page the next day, the huge publicity paving the way for the official cooperation and permission needed to proceed with our search.’
Krakowski pointed to the painting on the easel next to him. ‘As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, the search was successful. We eventually located the sarcophagus, opened it with the key Mr Rogan had discovered in the grave in Berchtesgaden, and found the painting—undamaged—resting on top of a wooden coffin, which was draped in black velvet and gold. The sarcophagus, which stood on a podium, just as described in the Francis diary, was decorated with an inscription plate, ivy wreaths and lion head handles. However, how we finally located the sarcophagus is an extraordinary story in itself, which Mr Rogan may perhaps one day write about. But for now, ladies and gentlemen, this is more than enough, and I thank you for your patience in listening to this rather long account of the painting’s journey from my parents’ home in Warsaw, to the auction that is about to begin.’
Krakowski turned to the auctioneer standing behind him. ‘Mr Auctioneer, I think it is time …’ Krakowski bowed to the audience and returned to his seat, as deafening applause erupted in the room.
Basking in the excitement all around him, the auctioneer stepped up to the microphone and adjusted his bowtie. Then, taking a deep breath, he reached for his gavel and held it up to calm the potential bidders, brimming with anticipation. It was the obvious signal that the auction was about to begin.
‘Ladies and gentlemen, the moment you’ve all been waiting for has arrived’, said the auctioneer and turned towards the painting. You’ve just witnessed something rarely seen at auctions like this: an eyewitness account of the painting’s extraordinary history from the very people who were involved in its unique provenance. It isn’t often that a masterpiece like this, with such a unique history, comes on the market. Yet here it is, for sale. And you’ve heard what will happen to the proceeds. A worthier cause than the Rosen Foundation is difficult to imagine.
‘I’m sure you’ll agree that every major gallery around the world would be proud to own this masterpiece. I’m in your hands, ladies and gentlemen. I give you … Claude Monet’s Little Sparrow in the Garden.’
The auctioneer paused, letting the tension grow, the anticipation on the faces in front of him a clear reflection of what was about to happen. ‘Do I have an opening bid?’
‘Twenty’, a man’s voice called out from the second row.
‘Twenty million pounds I have’, said the auctioneer, nodding in the bidder’s direction. ‘Twenty million it is. Any advances on twenty million?’
‘Twenty-five’, said a lady at the back.
‘That’s the spirit; thank you ma’am. Twenty-five million I have. Twenty-five million. It’s against you now, sir. Any advances on twenty-five million?’
‘Twenty-seven’, called out someone else at the back. A new bidder had entered the arena.
Sitting next to Krakowski in the front row, Dr Rosen’s head began to spin as the bidding became more spirited and advanced rapidly towards the thirty million mark. She reached for Krakowski’s hand and squeezed it. Transported by memories of that fateful morning in Warsaw a lifetime ago, Krakowski remembered his distant past, images of his murdered family and Auschwitz merging into a painful blur. He turned towards Dr Rosen and whispered, ‘Pinch me and tell me this is real’, tears glistening in the corners of his eyes. Dr Rosen squeezed his hand again in silent reply.
By now, three new bidders—all galleries—had entered the contest, quickly pushing up the price. Delighted—his face glowing with excitement—the auctioneer glanced in the direction of his two assistants, who were each taking bids over the phone from regulars wanting to stay out of the limelight.
One by one, the bidders in the room fell silent as the bidding approached the thirty-five million mark, until only the two phone-bidders remained. A hush fell over the auction room as the auctioneer focused on his assistants, their mobile phones pressed to their ears.
‘Thirty-five million I have; thirty-five million pounds for a masterpiece with a unique history. Any advance on thirty-five?’ the auctioneer droned on, carefully watching his assistants, anxious not to lose momentum. Then suddenly, one of the assistants shook his head and slipped the phone into his pocket. The auctioneer lifted his gavel. ‘Thirty-five million once; thirty-five million twice …’ The auctioneer paused, staring around the silent room. ‘Are you all done?’ he asked, all eyes in the room on his gavel. For a long moment, everyone in the room was completely still. Then suddenly, the pregnant silence was shattered as the auctioneer slammed down his gavel, denting the side of the lectern in front of him. ‘Sold!’ he cried out triumphantly. ‘Sold for thirty-five million pounds; congratulations!’
Cecilia Crawford pushed through the noisy crowd heading for the exit and tried to reach Jack, who was shaking Krakowski’s hand in front of the podium. ‘Mr Rogan,’ she shouted, holding up her notebook, ‘a brief word?’
Jack looked at the breathless reporter and smiled. ‘What can I do for you, Miss Crawford?’
‘Can you tell me what happened in the Imperial Crypt in Vienna?’ she asked, giving Jack her best smile. ‘My article wouldn’t be complete without it.’
‘I see. Dinner?’
‘Sure; why not?’
‘My hotel at seven?’
‘Where are you staying?’
‘I’ll be there.’
Jack watched the striking young woman walk slowly towards him in the lobby. Wow! What a transformation, he thought, extending his hand. Jeans, sneakers and sweater had been exchanged for a simple black designer dress, high heels and a pair of stunning earrings. Swept up, Cecilia Crawford’s hair looked stylish and exposed her graceful neck. Well aware of the effect she had on men, she walked confidently up to Jack and shook his hand.
‘Drink?’ he asked, motioning towards the bar.
‘Thank you, Mr Rogan’, said Cecilia Crawford, sipping the vodka martini the barman had placed in front of her.
‘Talking to me. I have to file my article later tonight …’
‘Please call me Jack’, interrupted her host, enjoying himself.
‘Then you must call me Celia; all my friends do.’
‘Chanel?’ asked Jack, leaning towards his guest, the tone of his voice conspiratorial.
A little taken aback, Celia looked at Jack. This guy is good, she thought, a smile creasing the corners of her mouth. ‘Not bad’, she said. ‘It is. Allure, in fact.’
‘Ah.’ Jack nodded appreciatively. He had a knack with perfumes and had used it often to break the ice and put women at ease. ‘I’ll tell you why I agreed to this meeting’, he said. ‘According to my publicist, you are very thorough, objective and do your homework. I think she’s right. I particularly liked your article about Dental Gold and Other Horrors. You obviously read my book; few journalists do.’
‘Well, thank you’, replied Celia, acknowledging the compliment. ‘I’ve read all of your books.’
‘You have? As a fan perhaps?’
‘Purely professional’, replied Celia, enjoying the banter.
‘Pity. Just when I thought …’
‘Don’t look so disappointed. You just told me what you liked about me. Allow me to tell you what I like about you—’
‘Another drink?’ interrupted Jack, a little embarrassed.
‘You are completely unaffected by your fame; you’ve managed to retain your persona; you speak your mind and don’t pander to the media. Very refreshing.’
‘Wow! That’s direct’, said Jack, laughing. ‘You reckon you can take the boy out of the outback, but you can’t take the outback out of the boy? Is that it?’
‘Something like that.’
‘My publicist would be disappointed to hear that. I always get into trouble with my wardrobe. She thinks I dress like a country bumpkin and makes me buy stuff I don’t like … Boss or Armani; it just isn’t me.’
‘Don’t listen to her. It’s part of your charm; trust me’, interjected Celia. ‘You should have seen the people at the auction this morning when you spoke. You had them in the palm of your hand; hanging on your every word. Not many can pull this off. A bit like the news conference at Heathrow you gave with Dr Rosen after you returned from Somalia in the Time Machine’s plane. That was quite a show.’
‘You were there?’
‘I was. It was one of the most exciting media appearances I’ve been to; like a movie, but without a script. You are a born storyteller.’
Jack held up his hand. ‘Enough! No more compliments, please. Let’s have dinner; I’m starving’, he said, laughing. ‘Country appetite, I’m afraid. Another one of my failings.’
Celia put down her glass, her eyes sparkling. ‘Let’s do that.’
Jack ordered two cognacs and sat back in his comfortable chair after the waiter had cleared away the dinner plates. Enjoying the ambience in the elegant dining room and the company of the exciting woman sitting opposite, he began to relax.
For a journalist pursuing a story, Celia had been very restrained. Not once had she mentioned the Imperial Crypt or the sarcophagus with the painting. Instead, she had engaged in entertaining, light-hearted conversation during dinner, and left it up to Jack to raise the subject when he was ready.
Smart girl, thought Jack, appreciating her tact. ‘You are right about the storyteller bit,’ he began, holding his warm brandy balloon with both hands, ‘that’s me. So, let me tell you a story about a lost painting, a coffin key and a remarkable boy with psychic powers—’
‘Young Tristan?’ interrupted Celia. ‘As in The Disappearance of Anna Popov _]and [_The Hidden Genes of Professor K?’
‘The very same’, replied Jack, impressed. ‘You have read my books!’
‘You have a special bond with that boy, don’t you?’
‘Very perceptive of you. Yes, I have. He’s without doubt one of the most remarkable teenagers I’ve come across. And besides, he saved my life in Somalia.’
‘Ah yes, during the sinking of the Calypso, if I remember correctly, the Blackburn flagship. It’s all in your book.’
‘Yes. The Hidden Genes of Professor K; spot on. If you want to file your story tonight, I better get on with it’, said Jack. ‘It all happened during that impromptu concert in the Imperial Crypt that Benjamin Krakowski mentioned at the auction. It’s a remarkable story. As you know, I’m a strong believer in destiny, and destiny was certainly at play that night, no doubt about it. It’s the only way I can explain what happened. Let me tell you about it, and you can judge for yourself.’
‘Everything is ready, Herr Krakowski’, said Dr Gruber, waiting for his famous guest backstage. Krakowski had just completed the final curtain call to a standing ovation, after performing his second violin concerto at the Musikverein, Vienna’s most famous concert venue for classical music.
‘So am I’, replied Krakowski, carefully placing his famous violin, the Empress, back in its case. He was very fond of Dr Gruber. With the curious title of Oberregierungsrat, Dr Gruber was in charge of some obscure department for the preservation of monuments in Austria, and had helped Krakowski and his legal team to cut through the legendary Austrian red tape before. But that wasn’t all. Highly regarded and well connected in government circles, he was also a master tactician who knew how to get what he wanted.
‘I have made arrangements for us to remain in the crypt after your performance’, said Dr Gruber, lowering his voice. I have explained everything to the custodian and spoke to him and his superior about the Francis diary and your search. Cooperation is assured and permission from the relevant authorities has been obtained; I have the necessary permits with me.’
‘I’m indebted to you’, said Krakowski, closing his violin case.
‘It’s the least we can do in return for your generosity.’
Dr Gruber realised that to have a world-famous artist like Krakowski perform a musical tribute to Sisi, one of Austria’s best-loved monarchs, at her final resting place—the Imperial Crypt—was quite a coup. In Austria, something like this counted for a lot. The publicity value alone was immeasurable, and to have the president of Austria attend the occasion was certainly the icing on the cake. In Austria, reputation was everything, and for a senior public servant like Dr Gruber to pull off something like this would elevate his reputation to enviable heights.
‘Your guests will meet us at the crypt’, said Dr Gruber, leading the way to the exit. ‘Everything has been arranged; it isn’t far.’
Jack turned to Tristan and pointed to the entrance leading down into the crypt, guarded by two uniformed policemen. ‘Remember what I told you about this place?’ said Jack.
Tristan looked at him and smiled. ‘Don’t fret; I know what it is. I’m ready.’
‘I hope so.’
‘Don’t worry about him,’ said Countess Kuragin, linking arms with Jack, ‘he’ll be fine.’
Jack already had second thoughts about asking Tristan to come along. Fully aware of the boy’s psychic powers, he had hoped that Tristan could somehow assist in the search. He knew the boy was wired differently, and had seen him in action many times. There was no doubt that his late mother’s gift had resurfaced in the boy, only stronger. Jack still remembered what she had told him about her son: ‘He can hear the whisper of angels and glimpse eternity …’
Since the death of his parents, Tristan had been living with Countess Kuragin in her chateau in France. Eternally grateful for the return of her lost daughter, Anna, and the role Tristan’s mother had played in her rescue, the countess had taken the orphaned Tristan into her home, and her heart. At first, she hadn’t been too pleased about Jack’s suggestion. But when Krakowski personally invited her to attend the concert in Vienna with Tristan, she had reluctantly agreed.
Dr Rosen fell in beside Jack. ‘You look worried’, she said.
‘It’s this place. It’s spooky; you’ll see’, whispered Jack. ‘This whole affair is weird to say the least. Looking for a lost painting hidden inside someone’s coffin … a little grotesque, don’t you think? Perhaps we should just forget it all and walk away.’
Dr Rosen stopped and turned to face Jack. ‘What? Are you serious?’ she said. ‘That’s not like you, Jack. Why the cold feet suddenly?’
As they gathered at the entrance to the chapel, Dr Rosen glanced again at the brochure Jack had given her earlier, it read:
The Imperial Crypt is divided into several separate vaults. At the entrance is the large Leopold Vault followed by the Karl Vault, which leads into the Maria Theresia Vault with the spectacular double sarcophagus of Austria’s most famous empress and her husband. The sarcophagi of Empress Elisabeth—Sisi—her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, and her son, Crown Prince Rudolf are in the Franz Joseph Vault next to the crypt chapel.
With standing room only, the hand-picked guests—the cream of the Austrian establishment—were waiting in the chapel for the performance to begin.
A ripple of excitement washed over the guests as Dr Gruber stepped forward. ‘Mr President, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,’ began Dr Gruber, ‘it gives me great pleasure to welcome you here this evening to a very special occasion rarely seen in a solemn place like this. Mr Benjamin Krakowski has kindly agreed to perform a special tribute to Empress Elisabeth, our beloved Sisi, right here in front of her final resting place. We know she loved Mozart, and Mr Krakowski will play some of her favourite melodies for us in her memory.’
A round of subdued applause began, but Dr Gruber held up his hand. ‘However, there is another very touching, quite personal twist to all this. We are about to witness a piece of history. Mr Krakowski has brought his famous Stradivarius, the[_ Empress_], with him tonight. Most of you would be familiar with the violin’s turbulent history, which is closely linked to Sisi, the Hungarian Esterhazy family, and the Holocaust. It is the centrepiece of Jack Rogan’s best-selling book, [_Dental Gold and Other Horrors, _]and its story has touched millions of readers around the world.’
Dr Gruber paused and pointed to Jack standing at the front. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunate indeed to have Mr Rogan here with us this evening to witness another chapter in the violin’s history.’
More subdued applause echoed around the chapel.
‘In fact,’ continued Dr Gruber, warming to his subject, ‘the instrument is named after the Empress—Sisi—herself, and it is therefore most befitting that it should pay tribute to her here tonight with sublime music played by a virtuoso.’ Dr Gruber turned to Krakowski standing next to him. ‘Maestro, please …’
Krakowski walked up to Empress Elisabeth’s sarcophagus and bowed. Then, lifting the violin to his chin, he turned around, faced his spellbound audience and closed his eyes. This moment of total concentration was how he focused before every performance. Crypt or concert hall, an audience was an audience. For a moment there was total silence in the chapel, all eyes on the man standing motionless in front of the empress’ sarcophagus. Then slowly, the bow touched the strings and the first notes of a sublime Mozart adagio drifted eerily across the burial chamber, breaking the deathly silence with Mozart’s genius.
Standing between Countess Kuragin and Jack, Tristan couldn’t take his eyes off Krakowski as the maestro began to play. At first, he was transported by the music. Soon, however, the music faded away and all he could hear was the whisper of voices closing in from all sides. Tristan pressed his trembling hands against his ears, but the voices wouldn’t go away. Instead, they were drilling into his tortured brain with messages he couldn’t understand. Countess Kuragin noticed Tristan’s distress and gently put her arm around him. This seemed to calm the boy, and the disturbing voices faded away. Feeling better, he looked gratefully at the countess as he remembered his mother’s warning: ‘Be careful; glimpsing eternity comes at a price’.
After the performance, the president thanked Krakowski personally, and the visitors began to leave. A beaming Dr Gruber then ushered Krakowski and his guests into the New Crypt behind the chapel, and asked them to wait.
‘That was quite something, Benjamin’, said Dr Rosen, kissing Krakowski on the cheek.
‘I’ve never played in a place like this. Very moving …’
Standing next to Krakowski, the countess looked at Tristan with a worried look on her face. The boy looked pale and shaken. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked, frowning. ‘What was all that about?’
‘Glimpsing eternity comes at a price’, replied Tristan, repeating his mother’s warning.
Jack overheard the remark. ‘What do you mean?’ he asked.
‘I heard voices; coming from everywhere …’
Jack wasn’t surprised by the answer. ‘Could you understand what they were saying?’
‘Were they angry?’
‘This is Brother Balthazar’, said Dr Gruber, introducing the custodian of the Imperial Crypt who Jack had met before. ‘He has kindly agreed to assist us in our search. He has considered the description in the Francis diary and has come up with a suggestion. Brother …’
The custodian appeared polite and cooperative, but his body language told a different story. It was obvious he wasn’t pleased about the unwelcome intrusion into his domain, and didn’t agree with disturbing the dead, however compelling the reason.
‘The diary talks about a simple sarcophagus standing on a podium decorated with …’ he said. ‘Unfortunately, that’s where the description ends abruptly. There are several sarcophagi fitting this description, but you must understand, we cannot just go from sarcophagus to sarcophagus and try to open—’
‘We understand completely’, Jack cut in, trying to placate the custodian and smooth his ruffled feathers.
Mollified, Brother Balthazar turned to Jack. ‘However, the coffin key could help’, he said. ‘Have you brought it with you?’
Jack reached into his pocket, pulled out the elaborate key and handed it to him. Standing in the shadows, Tristan was watching carefully. Then suddenly, the voices were back, but more subdued than before. One voice in particular, a woman speaking French, became more prominent. It was as if the coffin key had somehow triggered something…
Slowly, Tristan walked over to Brother Balthazar and held out his hand. ‘May I?’ he asked. The custodian looked at him, surprised, and handed him the key.
Jack paused and looked at Celia, who was hanging on his every word. She had her writing pad on the table in front of her and was busily taking notes. ‘Another drink?’ asked Jack, pointing to the empty brandy balloons.
‘No thanks. My head’s spinning already just from the story! Come on, Jack, keeping me in suspense like this isn’t fair. Tell me what happened!’
‘Such impatience’, sighed Jack, and ordered another cognac for himself.
‘Well, Tristan took the key from the custodian and began to walk slowly from sarcophagus to sarcophagus. He appeared to have entered a trance, oblivious to everything around him except the coffin key, which he held up to his ear like a phone—’
‘Communicating with the dead?’ interrupted Celia, a mischievous sparkle in her eyes.’
‘I know what you’re thinking, but you weren’t there.’
‘Come on, Jack …’
‘I will tell you what happened, and you can make up your own mind.’
‘Sorry; I better have that drink now.’
Jack pushed his brandy across the table towards Celia. ‘Here, have mine; you’ll need it. But back to the crypt …’
‘Tristan had us under his spell, especially the custodian, who crossed himself several times and began to pray. Silently, we followed Tristan from vault to vault, from sarcophagus to sarcophagus, like a funeral procession. Each time he entered a new chamber, he held up the key, looked around, and listened. Then suddenly, he stopped, and for what seemed an eternity, stared at a simple sarcophagus in front of him.’
Jack paused again, and ordered another drink.
‘For Christ’s sake, Jack; get on with it,’ urged Celia, ‘or I’ll miss my deadline!’
‘The sarcophagus stood on a podium and was decorated with an inscription plate and ivy wreaths, symbolising eternity’, continued Jack. ‘Lion head handles, a symbol for the resurrection of the dead, were the only other features of note. After a while, Tristan walked up to the sarcophagus and put the key on top of it. “This is the one”, he said, and stepped back.’
‘What happened next?’ demanded Celia. ‘This is worse than pulling teeth!’
‘The custodian put the key in the lock—a perfect fit—and unlocked the sarcophagus. I then helped him open the heavy lid.’
‘As Benjamin told us at the auction, we found the painting—intact—resting on top of a wooden coffin that was draped in black velvet and gold. The sarcophagus belonged to Empress Marie-Louise, the wife of Napoleon I, who died in 1847 in Parma.’
‘Unbelievable!’ exclaimed Celia. She closed her notepad, reached for her handbag and stood up. ‘You have to excuse me. I really must dash!’
‘Of course’, said Jack and stood up as well. ‘I’ll call you a cab.’
Outside the hotel, Jack opened the back door of a cab and stepped aside.
‘Thanks for a marvellous evening, Jack’, said Celia, and kissed Jack on the cheek.
‘You are most welcome. Aren’t you just a little bit curious to find out who bought the painting?’ asked Jack.
‘Of course I am. I tried my best to get it out of the auctioneer. No chance! He didn’t give anything away.’
‘I’m not surprised’, said Jack, laughing.
Celia turned around to face Jack. ‘You know, don’t you?’ she said, her voice sounding hoarse.
‘Now you tell me! You—’
‘I’m meeting the proud new owner for lunch tomorrow’, replied Jack calmly. ‘You can come with me if you like.’
For a moment, Celia just stared at Jack, disbelief and exasperation clouding her face. ‘Are you serious?’
‘I’ll pick you up at twelve-thirty.’
‘Okay. I’m staying at the Tower Thistle.’
‘Why?’ asked Celia, climbing into the cab.
‘Because it’s very close to where we’re going.’
‘I don’t believe this’, mumbled Celia.
‘I hope you write something nice about me.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
‘See you tomorrow’, said Jack, and closed the door of the cab.
Celia was waiting for Jack in front of her hotel overlooking the Tower Bridge.
‘You are a dark horse, Jack, I give you that’, she said breezily, and climbed into the cab. ‘No sleep for me at all last night, but my editor was mighty pleased with the article.’
‘So you found some nice things to say about me? Is that what kept you up all night?’ teased Jack.
‘You’ll just have to wait for the article to find out.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘If your editor was pleased with your stuff last night, wait for what’s about to happen.’
‘Are you winding me up?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Are you going to tell me where we’re going, or do I have to beg?’
‘Won’t make any difference. Tell you what; I’ll give you a clue.’
‘Go for it.’
‘The person you are about to meet is without doubt one of the most unique, talented, mega-rich, eccentric superstars alive on the planet today.’
‘What? Are you serious?’
‘I am. Any ideas?’
‘No. Any more clues?’
‘Adored by millions around the world…’
‘All right; one more. You’ll know in a moment anyway. If you’ve read all of my books, you’ve already met her’, teased Jack.
‘The megastar in The Hidden Genes of Professor K?’
‘Smart girl; I knew you would work it out.’
‘Are you serious, Jack, we are going to meet—’
‘Look over there,’ Jack pointed to a large converted bond store on the banks of the Thames, ‘the Time Machine Studios.’
‘Are you suggesting that Isis is the mystery buyer who just paid thirty-five million pounds for a lost painting?’
‘Exactly. And you are about to meet her. You’re in for a treat; trust me.’
‘How do I look?’ asked Isis, putting the finishing touches to her almost theatrical make-up.
‘Stunning as always’, her assistant Lola assured her.
‘We haven’t seen Jack in ages. And Krakowski and Dr Rosen can make it, you say?’
‘They should be here in a moment.’
‘Excellent. All is ready for lunch?’
Isis stood up and looked at herself in the mirror. ‘Not bad for an old chook who’s been to death’s doorstep and back’, she said.
‘You can say that again.’
Dressed in a pair of tight-fitting culottes, high heels that would have made Lady Gaga envious, and an electric blue Chanel blouse—one of her favourites—Isis almost looked her glamorous self again. The only reminder of her terrible illness was her short hair. Instead of wearing a wig, as she did on stage, she had decided to keep her hair short, pixie-style, which gave her an endearing, young, boyish look, accentuating her prominent cheekbones. As a transsexual, she looked fabulous, and many women would have killed for a figure like hers. Anyone looking at her would have found it difficult to believe that Isis was in fact George Edward Elms who, since the brutal murder of his parents two years ago that brought down the Conservative Government, was now Lord Elms.
‘That should do it. I’ll come down as soon as they’ve arrived.’ Lola smiled. Isis never missed an entry to impress.
‘And the painting?’ fussed Isis.
‘In place. Next to the table set for lunch; just as you requested.’
Isis kissed Lola on the cheek. ‘Thank you for putting up with me’, she said. ‘It can’t be easy.’
Lola beamed. She lived for moments like this. She adored Isis with every fibre of her body and would gladly have laid down her life to serve her mistress.
‘Pinch me, Jack, and tell me this is real’, said Celia, following the security guard into the lobby of the Time Machine’s legendary headquarters, a converted nineteenth-century bond store right on the Thames, not far from the Tower Bridge. Complete with recording studio, offices, underground parking, resident staff, guest accommodation and a spectacular penthouse overlooking the river on top, it was the Time Machine’s state-of-the–art nerve centre, and Isis’ London home. It even had an in-house restaurant with seating for fifty, twenty-four-seven room service, and a communications facility that would have made the BBC envious. Industrial chic at its very best. Functional, trendy, secure and totally original.
‘It’s just as you describe it in your book’, said Celia, looking around.
‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet’, said Jack. ‘Wait till you see the penthouse.’
Lola was waiting for them at the lift. She hurried towards Jack, threw her arms around him and kissed him on both cheeks. ‘I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to see you’, she said, tears sparkling in her eyes. ‘And this must be Ms Crawford’, she said, turning immediately into the professional PA. ‘Welcome to the Time Machine. Isis will meet us upstairs.’
‘You must be the pilot’, said Celia, shaking her head.
‘Among other things, yes.’
‘Look who’s just arrived’, said Jack, pointing to the entrance. Krakowski and Dr Rosen were getting out of a cab. They looked up and waved.
‘What a reunion’, said Lola, beaming. ‘Everyone’s here. Let’s go upstairs; Isis is waiting.’
Silently, the glass lift whisked them to the top floor.
‘Wow!’ Celia took in the breathtaking view of the London skyline. The penthouse—a two-storey, open-plan steel and glass cube—looked like an art gallery perched on top of an industrial complex. One part of the large space was divided by a huge canvas. Reaching from the marble floor to the glass ceiling two stories above, the painting reminded Celia of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles. Other, smaller paintings were displayed along galleries linked by exposed glass stairs and steel bridges crisscrossing the open space, with the odd bronze bust of a Roman emperor or Greek philosopher thrown in to enhance the eclectic collection. In pride of place on a ledge just above the lift, a stunning Maori war canoe—complete with paddles—conjured up images of cannibals, bloody raids and brutal death.
‘Isis likes to surround herself with art and curios’, said Lola, showing her guests to comfortable leather lounges facing the view. ‘It inspires her.’
Jack pointed to a massive reclining stone Buddha greeting visitors at the lift. ‘This is my favourite’, he said to Celia, who tried to take it all in, her eyes darting from one spectacular piece to another.
‘What a surprise to find that Isis was the mystery buyer’, said Dr Rosen, leaning back in her comfortable leather chair.
‘Perhaps not so surprising,’ said Krakowski, ‘if we consider what has happened to her.’
‘I agree’, said Jack. ‘Once it became public that you were donating the proceeds to the Rosen Foundation, the whole thing began to make sense. Isis has made it clear that funding charities like the Rosen Foundation and medical research are her top priorities. And I’m sure she has plans for the painting too …’
‘I think Jack is right’, said Lola. She pointed to the glass stairs leading down from the top floor. ‘Why don’t we ask her? Here she comes now.’
Jack walked towards the stairs and looked up. Isis had presence. The consummate performer, she knew how to make an entrance. Slowly, taking one step at a time, she came down to meet her visitors, the anticipation in the room crackling. Isis embraced Jack at the bottom of the stairs and held him tight. It was a spontaneous gesture of deep friendship and love. Then, holding Jack’s hand, she walked over to her guests to greet them.
Krakowski couldn’t take his eyes off the painting and thought it looked different in the spectacular setting. The mood had changed. It was as if it had been reborn, entered a new life, and in many ways it had done just that.
‘I thought before we have lunch, I should tell you why I bought the painting and what I intend to do with it’, said Isis. ‘I can see you are all dying to know, but too polite to ask.’
Subdued laughter told Isis she was right.
‘The fact that I am standing here in front of you today at all, is in no small way due to what you, Jack, Bettany, Lola and Benjamin, and many others, have done for me. Jack would say that destiny has brought us together, and I agree with him.
‘Drifting along the edge of life as I had done not long ago, gives you time to think; to reflect. I know I am on borrowed time, and what time I have left I want to use wisely. As you know, I recently lost my entire family, and for the first time in my life I had to face my own mortality and come to terms with what really matters. On stage, fantasy becomes real, the illusion becomes your reality. Adoration can be very intoxicating and it can distort everything. Yet you crave it like a drug until you are hopelessly addicted to it and eventually, believe your own legend. That was me. But not anymore.
‘Looking back; so far, it’s been all about me. From now on, my friends, it will all be about making a difference’, said Isis quietly, her voice quivering with emotion and sounding hoarse.
Sensing her distress, Dr Rosen walked over to Isis and put her arms around her. ‘Facing your demons is the first step’, she whispered. ‘After that, it’s easy. Trust me; I know.’
Isis looked at her gratefully, a wry smile creasing the corners of her mouth. ‘Your decision, Benjamin,’ continued Isis, ‘to donate the proceeds of the auction sale to the Rosen Foundation in memory of your family was the trigger. You showed me the way. For some time now, I wanted to set up a Time Machine Foundation and harness our worldwide connections and exposure to do something really worthwhile. Lola even came up with a slogan: A TIME MACHINE FOR A BETTER FUTURE—’
‘It’s got a good ring to it’, interrupted Jack. ‘I like it.’
Isis, a sophisticated art connoisseur herself, walked over to the painting and pointed to the delightful scene of the man playing the violin by the pond. ‘I thought that this wonderful painting with its extraordinary history could become our foundation centrepiece; our emblem. In a way, it has become a very personal painting, even for me. Now that thought has become a reality.’ Isis turned to the waiter standing behind her and asked him to serve the champagne.
Theatrical to the core, she was enjoying the performance. ‘My friends, a toast.’ Isis looked at the painting and held up her champagne flute. ‘May the Little Sparrow in the Garden turn into a time machine for a better future. I give you, Little Sparrow in the Garden!’
‘Little Sparrow in the Garden’, echoed the others and raised their glasses.
‘Why have you brought me here, Jack?’ asked Celia, as they took their seats at the table. ‘I feel like an intruder.’
‘Don’t. Very soon, you’ll be part of this family.’
‘What on earth do you mean?’
‘Isis wants to go public with this, right now. I suggested you.’
‘Because you are the right person for the job.’
‘And this is okay with Isis?’
‘She trusts my judgement. Now let’s have some tucker. I’m starving.’
‘Tucker? What’s tucker?’
‘Aussie for lunch. I’m a country boy, remember? Let’s get stuck into it!’
‘Have you seen the headlines?’ asked the housekeeper, pointing to a bundle of newspapers on a tray. The cook shook her head and shrugged. ‘He won’t like it. I better take them up; he’ll be expecting them by now. Get his breakfast ready.’
Emil Fuchs was in remarkable shape for someone who had just turned ninety-five. His body was fragile, but in reasonably good condition for his age. His mind, however, was as sharp and agile as ever. Confined to a wheelchair, he spent most of his time in his mansion in Gstaad, just up the road from Valentino and other celebrities. The mansion, a large, three hundred-year-old converted Swiss chalet with spectacular views over the Alps, had been his home for over seventy years.
Fuchs had made his personal fortune during the war. As a young executive in his father’s bank, he acted as the go-between between the bank and the Nazis. The Nazi war machine could not have rolled across Europe without access to an international banking system. It could not have purchased the raw materials needed to keep its foundries, its shipyards and munitions factories operational, without the regular supply of hard currency acceptable to its trading partners. Throughout the war the Swiss supplied both: the Swiss franc as a much coveted and internationally acceptable currency, and their banks to facilitate payment. Neutrality was very profitable.
Huge amounts of gold were transferred regularly by the Nazis to Switzerland, mainly through the Reichsbank, or smuggled into the country by various clandestine means, and Emil Fuchs had been one of the most resourceful smugglers of them all.
Most of the gold was looted from the conquered treasuries of occupied countries, or stolen from murdered Jews. Some of it was obscenely grizzly; dental gold extracted from the bodies of gassed Jews in the camps. The gold was purchased by the Swiss with Swiss francs, thus providing Berlin with the currency it needed to keep its industry functioning.
A frequent visitor to Berlin, where the dashing young banker was feted and entertained by the Nazi elite, he had access to the highest echelons. His weakness for art—especially paintings—was well-known, and the Nazis made sure that ‘bargains’ came his way every time he visited. During the last three years of the war, Fuchs managed to acquire a vast collection of priceless paintings, which he kept at his home in Gstaad. A man of precision and a stickler for correctness, he always paid for the pieces personally, and insisted on detailed receipts, documenting each transaction. The fact that most transactions were shams arranged by the SS didn’t occur to the young banker, who didn’t appear to notice that most of the time the vendors, mainly Jews, were coerced into the sale and had no say in the matter. Nor did it occur to him that the amounts asked for the paintings were a pittance of their actual value. Blinded by the opportunity, Fuchs didn’t ask any questions. Any moral considerations were conveniently brushed aside, overshadowed by his lust for possessing priceless art.
The housekeeper knocked and entered.
‘What took you so long?’ demanded Fuchs gruffly. He waved impatiently and pointed to the small table next to his wheelchair facing the large, panoramic window. Reading the papers in the morning was one of his little pleasures and the highlight of his day. He always began with The New York Times, his favourite.
Enjoying the warmth of the morning sun reflected by the glass, he let his eyes wander over the headlines until they came to rest on something extraordinary:
Mystery buyer pays 35 million pounds for lost Monet
During an epic auction that lasted several hours, a mystery buyer bidding over the phone paid 35 million pounds for ‘Little Sparrow in the Garden’, an unknown painting by Claude Monet that had recently been rediscovered.
The celebrity auction, which was well attended, has made headlines around the world. This was due to the painting’s colourful history. As part of its provenance, a diary was also included in the sale, which throws some light on the painting’s intriguing background and ownership …
The article then mentioned Krakowski and Jack as being intimately involved in the painting’s extraordinary discovery, and then went on to say that the entire proceeds of the record-breaking sale had been donated to the Rosen Foundation. The article concluded with a summary of the painting’s fascinating provenance.
What nonsense is this? Fuchs fumed, reading the article a second time to make sure he had not been mistaken. However, the photo of the painting at the bottom of the article filed by Cecilia Crawford left no room for doubt. Fuchs folded the paper carefully along its creases, put it back on the table and then stared intently out the window.
Rogan again! he thought. Poking his nose into the past; [unbelievable! Will that man never leave me alone! _]Only two years before, Jack’s book _Dental Gold and Other Horrors had catapulted Jack to international fame and triggered a massive class action by Holocaust survivors and their relatives against a number of Swiss banks, Fuchs’ included. With mounting international pressure and damning evidence and criticism, the banks eventually capitulated and opened their ledgers and their vaults, resulting in massive compensation payouts and humiliating apologies.
After a while, Fuchs turned his wheelchair around, and wheeled himself towards the stone fireplace at the other end of the large room. A shaft of sunlight reached through the window, across the room towards the fireplace like an accusing finger, momentarily illuminating the painting hanging on the wall next to it. Fuchs positioned his wheelchair in front of the painting—one of his favourites—and looked at it for a long time. His mind raced back to a bleak, rainy day in Warsaw, almost seventy years ago. In the centre of the brilliant painting stood a young man playing a violin at the edge of a lily pond.
‘This is my Little Sparrow in the Garden’, mumbled Fuchs. ‘Some fool just paid thirty-five million for a fake.’ He then turned his wheelchair abruptly around, wheeled himself back to the window and rang the bell on the table.
The housekeeper appeared almost immediately. ‘Yes, Herr Fuchs?’
‘Dictation! Now!’ demanded Fuchs, the tone of his voice agitated and angry.
‘I’ll send up your secretary at once’, replied the housekeeper, surprised by his violent outburst.
‘You do that!’
Jack felt his mobile vibrating in his pocket and answered it. It was Celia. ‘Jack, we must talk, it’s urgent,’ she said, sounding excited.
Jack knew instantly something was wrong. ‘What’s up?’ he said.
‘Not over the phone. We must meet—now! Where are you?’
‘In my hotel. I’m having a drink with Benjamin and Bettany before dinner.’
‘I’ll come over right away.’
‘All right. See you shortly’, said Jack, and hung up.
‘What was that all about?’ asked Dr Rosen.
‘Don’t know. It was Celia. Something important.’
‘Did she say what?’ said Krakowski.
‘No. But we’ll know soon enough. She’s on her way.’
Looking a little pale and flustered, Celia joined them in the bar half an hour later.
‘You look like you need a drink’, said Jack.
‘I do. Make it a large one.’
‘Something wrong?’ asked Krakowski.
‘Not sure.’ Celia opened her handbag and pulled out a crumpled piece of paper. ‘My editor received this earlier today. A response to my article.’
‘Oh? How interesting; may I see it?’
Without saying another word, Celia handed Jack the piece of paper.
‘Wow!’ said Jack. ‘I need another drink.’
‘Are you going to tell us?’ asked Krakowski.
Jack passed the piece of paper to Krakowski. ‘Here, better read it yourself.’
Krakowski read the short text several times and then stared at the two pictures at the bottom.
‘Well?’ prompted Dr Rosen. ‘Don’t keep us in suspense.’
Krakowski held up the piece of paper with trembling hands. ‘It’s addressed to the editor of The New York Times and refers to Celia’s article we read this afternoon.’ He began to read:
I must inform you that someone has just paid thirty-five million pounds for a fake. Why? Because the original painting, namely Claude Monet’s ‘Little Sparrow in the Garden’, hangs right in front of me on the wall in my house here in Switzerland. (See photo).
I purchased the painting from Berenger Krakowski in 1942 in Warsaw. He wanted to sell the painting and I bought it. It was a legal, arm’s length transaction. He wanted to be paid in gold, which I did. I still have the original bill of sale. (See photo). I think it is important to set the record straight. Your readers are entitled to know the truth, and so is the unfortunate buyer for that matter.
Visibly shaken, Krakowski put the piece of paper on the table in front of him. ‘There are two photos at the bottom’, he said quietly, his voice sounding hoarse. ‘A photo of the painting, and a close-up of some kind of handwritten document.’
Jack picked up the piece of paper. ‘It looks like a receipt’, he said. ‘It mentions the painting, a sum of money received from Emil Fuchs, and is signed Berenger Krakowski.’
‘Is that your father’s signature?’ asked Jack after a while.
‘Looks like it’, said Krakowski. Shocked, he covered his face with both hands and it looked as if he was sobbing. ‘I’m confused. I don’t know what to think.’
Dr Rosen put her arm around him to comfort him, and Jack ordered another round of drinks. ‘That’s what I call a bombshell’, said Jack to Celia.
‘This is serious. What are we going to do, Jack?’
‘We’ll think of something; don’t worry.’
‘You are enjoying this, aren’t you?’
‘You must admit, it’s a great story’, replied Jack, smiling.
‘Think of the consequences’, said Celia, a worried look on her face. ‘The implications are enormous.’
‘Sure are. You are going to become famous, Miss Crawford. But we have to play this the right way’, said Jack, turning serious.
‘What do you mean?’
‘Dinner first, strategy later. I’m a starving country boy, remember?’
‘How can you …?’ said Celia, shaking her head in frustration.
‘“Never make an important decision on an empty stomach”, my first editor used to say. You should take this on board, Celia; seriously.’
Celia turned to Dr Rosen. ‘Can you believe this guy?’
‘I’m used to him, and so is Benjamin. Let’s go and have dinner’, said Dr Rosen, and stood up. ‘He’ll be impossible otherwise.’
‘Well, let me tell you something about Emil Fuchs’, began Jack, after the entrée plates had been cleared away.
‘You know him?’ interrupted Celia.
‘Kind of. He’s a wealthy Swiss banker; old school. I haven’t met him, but I’ve certainly come across him—big time.’
‘How?’ asked Krakowski.
‘The class action against the Swiss banks, triggered by my book Dental Gold and Other Horrors. He, or more accurately, his impressive legal team, were the most vocal opponents to the proceedings. They came up with ingenious arguments resisting the claims. It must have cost Fuchs millions. He never left his Swiss mansion and ran the entire case from there. He was well in his nineties; impressive guy.’
‘Amazing’, said Dr Rosen.
‘Sure is. In the end, however, the pressure became too much, and he caved in. “Compromised” would be the better term perhaps. He put a certain offer on the table—take it or leave it—and then just stared down his opponents; very gutsy.’
‘What happened?’ asked Celia.
‘Everyone was very tired by then; litigation fatigue had set in. The proceedings had been dragging on for ages, costs were mounting up, and public interest began to wane. I’m sure this was part of Fuchs’ strategy. When all else fails, delay can be a very potent weapon, if you can afford it. And that guy had deep pockets, I tell you. A compromise was reached and the case was settled.’
‘That was it?’
‘Yes. As you know, it was hailed as a great victory against the Swiss banks, and in many ways it was. However, it was time to close that painful chapter in the history books. Everyone had had enough.’
‘And Fuchs?’ asked Krakowski.
‘He maintained to the end that as a neutral banker he had done nothing wrong. Of course, this didn’t wash with the press, but legally he had an argument and he stuck to it.’
‘So he got away with it?’ said Celia.
‘Not exactly. His reputation and that of all the banks was badly tarnished; millions were paid in compensation, but this guy has a rhino hide, a giant ego and an unshakable self-belief. I was of course very critical of the banks and their actions during the war in my book, and exposed many of their questionable dealings. Fuchs certainly didn’t like this and has attacked me and my book several times in public; in the press mainly. He was trying to discredit me.’
‘Did it work?’ asked Celia.
‘No. It backfired; badly. So as you can imagine, I’m not very popular with Mr Fuchs. He must therefore have been mighty pissed off to find that here I was again, this time taunting him with the painting.’
‘And this is going to help us?’
‘I think so.’
‘How, exactly?’ asked Krakowski.
‘Rule number one,’ replied Jack, ‘know your opponent. I think I know that man, and how we should deal with him.’
‘So, what’s on your mind, Machiavelli?’ said Celia.
‘All right, let’s have a closer look at what we have here. To begin with, we can safely assume that this is no hoax. Someone like Fuchs doesn’t play games.’
‘What does that mean?’ interrupted Krakowski.
‘There now appear to be two identical paintings attributed to Monet. In short, Little Sparrow in the Garden has a double. Obviously, there can only be one original; the other has to be a fake, unless Monet painted two, which we can dismiss as nonsense. We can also safely assume that Fuchs is convinced that he has the original, and that he can prove it.’
‘But that’s impossible’, protested Krakowski. ‘You know the history of our painting; you are part of it. You’ve seen what the experts had to say. They all agree—’
Jack held up his hand. ‘I know, Benjamin. This must come as a shock, but we have to deal with the facts, and the facts tell us that we have an original and a fake, and we have to show beyond doubt which is which.’
‘And how are we going to do that?’ asked Dr Rosen.
‘I have an idea, but we must act quickly.’
‘Tell us, Jack’, said Celia, leaning forward.
‘First, you call your editor now and ask him to reply to Fuchs’ email.’
‘Like any reasonable paper would. Express interest in the matter but tell Fuchs that without further substantiation the paper cannot take the matter further. You are throwing him a challenge, and I can promise you, he’ll go for it. The editor should then make him an offer.’
‘What offer?’ interrupted Celia.
‘To send a journalist—you—to interview him at his home tomorrow.’
Celia looked at Jack, surprised. ‘Are you serious?’ she asked.
‘Just like that? He’s in Switzerland, for Christ’s sake.’
‘So? Leave the logistics to me. If he agrees to this, which I believe he will, we are halfway there.’
‘You seem pretty sure about all this’, said Krakowski.
‘I am. The most important thing at the moment is to keep this out of the public domain. Isis just paid thirty-five million for the painting, you just sold it, and the Rosen Foundation has received the proceeds. The last thing we need is some scandal hanging over this, with competing claims about authenticity flying back and forth and, God forbid, ending up in court. Also, I believe Isis must be told about all this now. I will go and talk to her after dinner.’
Krakowski kept staring at Jack, a worried look on his face as the magnitude of the dilemma began to sink in.
‘Don’t look so glum’, said Jack, turning to face Krakowski. ‘For what it’s worth, I have no doubt we have the original painting. We just have to convince Fuchs that this is so.’
‘And how exactly are we going to do that?’ asked Celia, shaking her head.
‘Ah. Here comes our main course now’, said Jack. ‘You know how it works: tucker first, strategy later.’
Jack met Celia in front of her hotel early the next morning. ‘Your editor sent the email?’ he asked.
‘Exactly as you suggested.’
‘You were right. Fuchs agreed to the interview at once, just as you predicted.’
‘The old bugger can’t help himself. This is all a great adventure for him, can’t you see? A lonely old man at the end of his life feeling important, most likely for the last time. We are giving him exactly what he craves: attention. He can’t resist it.’
‘Well played, Jack; I’m impressed. Fuchs expects me sometime today. I have his phone number. Pray tell me, how am I going to get there in time?’
‘That’s the easy bit’, said Jack, brushing Celia’s concerns aside.
‘You’ve managed to book a flight?’ she asked hopefully.
‘No need. We don’t need tickets.’
‘I don’t get it.’
‘You will in a moment. Let’s go.’
‘Where are we going?’
Jack was enjoying himself. ‘To the airport of course,’ he said, ‘where else?’
The taxi dropped them at the terminal reserved for private planes. ‘Here we are’, said Jack, and paid the cabbie.
‘You chartered a plane?’ asked Celia, her eyes wide with astonishment.
‘No need; we have our own.’
‘You lost me …’
‘Ah, here she comes.’
‘Lola; our pilot.’
Jack had spent the entire night with Isis discussing the situation, and together, they hammered out a plan of attack. Isis placed Pegasus—her private jet—at Jack’s disposal, which took care of the logistical considerations involved. Lola was delighted. She hadn’t flown the plane for quite some time and was keen to get her hands on the controls and take to the air. Pegasus was always on standby, day or night, and could be prepared for take-off within a couple of hours.
‘Have you been in one of these before?’ asked Jack, following Celia into the cockpit.
‘No; this is amazing.’
‘Then you are in for a treat. You sit behind Lola.’
Lola was in her element. Flying was her passion because to her, it meant freedom. Strapped into the seat behind her, Celia watched her prepare the jet for take-off. Fascinated by Lola’s ability to manipulate the aircraft’s sophisticated controls, she listened to the instructions coming from the traffic control tower as the jet taxied slowly along the runway. With excitement and a little fear churning in her stomach, Celia felt like a co-pilot sitting in a fighter jet, ready to take off and roar into battle. A few moments after the A380 in front of them had disappeared into the morning mist, traffic control gave Pegasus permission to take off.
‘Here we go’, said Lola, her hand on the throttle.
Celia had never before experienced such power in an aircraft. Pressed into the seat by the breathtaking acceleration of the jet, Celia felt a great sense of exhilaration gripping every fibre of her tense body. It was a wonderful feeling of freedom. ‘Wow!’ Celia cried out, gripping the arms of her seat as the plane left the ground and rapidly began to climb.
As soon as the plane reached cruising altitude and levelled out, Lola turned to the co-pilot sitting next to her. ‘Okay Joe, she’s all yours’, she said, unclipping her seatbelt and getting out of her seat.
‘Come, Celia,’ said Lola, ‘let’s go to the back. It’s a little more comfortable there. The weather forecast is good, and we should get some great views of the Alps before we land in Bern. I have arranged for a hire car to take us to Gstaad. Should only take us a bit over an hour.’
‘Just like the good old days’, said Jack, leaning back in his comfortable seat. ‘Lola and I have been around the world in this little beauty, haven’t we Lola?’
‘Sure have. And we had quite an adventure taking off in Mogadishu. Only just made it—’
‘That was after the sinking of the Calypso, the Blackburn flagship, wasn’t it?’ interrupted Celia excitedly. ‘It’s all in your book—The Hidden Genes of Professor K.’
‘It is’, said Jack.
‘And you gave that fateful news conference at Heathrow after you arrived from Somalia. I was there!’
‘Small world, isn’t it Lola’, said Jack, and kissed Lola on the cheek. ‘Now, let’s get down to business. This is a short flight’, continued Jack. ‘Listen carefully; this is our plan of attack.’
Fuchs watched the black hire car pull into the driveway below his window. It was just after noon. He adjusted his binoculars and watched the driver open the rear door of the limousine; a young woman got out of the back seat and looked up.
Ah, Miss Crawford. Right on time, thought Fuchs, well pleased with the effect his email had had in such a short time. For the first time in years, he felt a sense of excitement and control he thought he would never experience again. Once more, he was pulling the strings, and Fuchs was a cunning puppeteer who could make people dance to his will to get what he wanted.
Fuchs turned his wheelchair around to face the door and watched the young woman walk slowly towards him. ‘Miss Crawford’, said Fuchs, extending his hand. ‘You are much younger than I imagined.’ Celia walked over to the old man and shook his hand. It felt like old parchment; dry and flaky. ‘Good of you to come, and so quickly. Very impressive.’
‘Thank you, Herr Fuchs,’ replied Celia, giving the old man her best smile, ‘for the opportunity to meet you.’
Despite the wheelchair, at ninety-five, Fuchs was still an impressive man. Impeccably dressed in a white shirt, blue blazer and grey slacks, he obviously took great care with his appearance. A shock of white hair, neatly parted in the middle, and gold-rimmed glasses gave him a studious look, like a retired university professor. But most striking of all were his eyes: clear and ice-blue, they radiated intelligence and danger.
‘Shall we sit by the painting?’ suggested Fuchs. ‘It’s just over there.’
Celia followed Fuchs across the room. Fuchs didn’t believe in polite chitchat and decided instead to come straight to the point.
‘What do you think?’ he asked, and pointed to the painting.
Celia was stunned. The striking painting looked exactly like the one she had seen at the auction. The only difference appeared to be the frame, which was far more elaborate. Displayed on a small table in front of the painting was a piece of yellowish paper; obviously the receipt.
‘Extraordinary’, said Celia, genuinely surprised.
‘Your article that first alerted me to all this the other day was excellent, Miss Crawford. I like your style. Good journalism; quite rare these days.’
‘Since then, my secretary has obtained a full transcript of what Mr Krakowski and Mr Rogan had to say at the auction. You can assume that I am familiar with all that.’
‘What do you think of the painting’s provenance?’ asked Celia, coming straight to the point. She sensed that Fuchs would like that. He did.
‘Impressive, and convincing, if it weren’t for this.’ Fuchs picked up the piece of paper on the table in front of him and handed it to Celia. ‘I bought the original painting in 1943 from Berenger Krakowski; here’s the proof.’
‘With respect, what makes you so sure it is the original?’ asked Celia quietly.
‘I understand, of course, where you are coming from. Firstly, I know art, Miss Crawford. In my considered opinion, this is a genuine Monet. However, there is more. The circumstances of the purchase.’
‘The painting was offered for sale in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942. Those were desperate times, Miss Crawford. For a man like Krakowski living in the ghetto with his family, selling a fake to the authorities would have been a death sentence; unthinkable.’
‘You seem very sure about all this.’
Arrogance, thought Celia. She realised that the next part was the tricky bit and she had to proceed with caution. ‘I don’t quite know how to put this, Herr Fuchs, but for my paper to take this further, we need more.’
‘What do you mean?’ snapped Fuchs.
‘The painting sold at the auction was examined by a team of leading experts, and unanimously pronounced to be a genuine Monet. You also claim to have the genuine article …’ Celia paused, collecting her thoughts. ‘Obviously, both cannot be right, can they?’
‘Are you suggesting this is a forgery?’ demanded Fuchs, squirming in his wheelchair.
‘Certainly not, but you must understand it isn’t for me to say.’
‘No, of course not. Forgive me. So, where to from here?’
‘My paper has a proposal.’
‘It is willing to engage Professor Moreau—who is, as you are no doubt aware, the leading authority on Monet’s work—to come here and examine the painting.’
‘And he has agreed to this? Moreau has agreed to come here?’
‘Yes. My paper has already been in touch with him and he is prepared to take on the assignment, should you agree. As you know, he examined the painting sold at the auction, and is therefore very interested in having a look at this one. “A unique situation”, I think he called it. He lives in Paris, but we could have him brought here tomorrow should that be convenient.’
‘How extraordinary’, said Fuchs, running his fingers nervously through his hair. ‘Moreau coming here to examine my painting.’
Pride, thought Celia. Got ya!
‘I have nothing to fear, Miss Crawford. I am happy to agree to the arrangement, but with one proviso.’
‘That you write an article about the findings, and give it the prominence it deserves in your paper.’
‘Agreed’, said Celia. ‘After all, that’s what this is all about.’
‘Splendid. Now, let’s have some tea, shall we?’
For the leading expert on Monet with a worldwide reputation that had collectors, art galleries and auction houses hang on his opinions as pronouncements set in stone, Jacques Moreau was a surprisingly unassuming man. Quietly spoken, small in stature and balding, he looked more like a retired country librarian than the feared and respected expert he was. When it came to Monet, his word was final, and insurers set their valuations and premiums according to his opinions. If your Monet wasn’t on Moreau’s list, it wasn’t a Monet; simple.
Isis had acted quickly. By offering Moreau an astronomical fee and a ride in her private jet, she secured the services of the man needed to address the looming problem. After Fuchs had agreed to the proposed arrangement, Lola flew to Paris and collected Moreau. Despite his fearsome reputation and droll appearance, Moreau was surprisingly good company, and Jack in particular got on very well with him from the start. In fact, Lola, Celia and Jack spent an entertaining evening with Moreau in one of Gstaad’s finest hotels.
‘What do you think about all this, Jacques?’ asked Jack, leaning back in his comfortable chair facing the huge fireplace in the hotel bar. Helped by copious quantities of vintage wine consumed during the sumptuous dinner, he and Moreau were already on first name terms, and appeared to be getting on famously.
The little man sitting in the chair next to Jack seemed to have come to life. ‘It’s a unique situation for sure’, he said. ‘I haven’t come across anything quite like this before, especially with an artist like Monet. Two identical-looking paintings, both with unique histories and a convincing provenance, but as we both know, there can only be one original.’
‘Quite. So what’s your approach tomorrow?’
‘Same as usual: methodical and scientific. However, the painting will hold all the answers—it always does—and I will have to find them; that’s the challenge. There’s a tried and tested way to do this. In the end it all comes down to a few simple points. It’s all about uncovering facts. Facts cannot hide. It’s not that complicated at all.’
‘Many would disagree with you there’, said Jack.
‘How did you get into this?’ asked Jack. ‘I mean, become an—’
‘Authentication expert?’ Moreau cut in, laughing. ‘That’s what they call me, you know, but I like to think of myself as a forgery sleuth; does that make sense?’
‘A forgery sleuth? I like that.’
‘Usually, I can see—sense would be more accurate—a forgery as soon as I set eyes on a painting. The rest of the process is to support this with reasoning and facts. That’s the tedious bit. But first impressions are everything, and rarely prove me wrong.’
‘How interesting. Are you suggesting that when you see Fuchs’ painting tomorrow for the first time, you will form a view then and there?’
‘Most likely, yes.’
‘Just as you did with the painting at the auction?’
‘Yes. I have no doubt it is an original Monet, just as I said in my report. Nothing will change that.’
‘It’s been a long day. We had better turn in’, said Jack. ‘What do you think?’
‘I’ve enjoyed talking to you, Jack. We must do this again.’
‘Absolutely. I’m sure we’ll have an interesting day tomorrow.’
‘I hope so.’
The next morning, the hire car pulled up in front of Fuchs’ mansion at ten o’clock sharp, as arranged. Fuchs watched from above as Moreau and the others got out of the car. Moreau coming here; how fabulous, thought Fuchs, becoming quite excited, a rare emotion for a man like him. But when it came to his paintings, he turned into a different man; passionate, emotional even. His paintings were his friends, and in his lonely old age, they were the only friends he had left.
Just before Celia closed the car door, something caught Fuchs’ eye: someone sitting in the back seat who didn’t get out. Fuchs reached for his binoculars. Just before the car pulled out of the driveway, he caught a glimpse of the profile of a man. I wonder, thought Fuchs, smiling, I wonder …
Fuchs chatted to Moreau while Celia’s team set up the equipment. It had been agreed that the examination would be recorded on video, and she had engaged an experienced cameraman with crew in Bern.
‘You have a fabulous collection, Herr Fuchs’, said Moreau, pointing across the room. ‘Degas, Manet, Renoir, Cezanne; how extraordinary! You are a fortunate man.’
Fuchs was obviously pleased. This was more excitement than he had had in years. His almost hermit-like lifestyle prevented contact with the outside world, and with no family to speak of, he lived like a recluse in monastic isolation surrounded by his paintings, and liked it that way. But to have an expert, the expert on Monet, sitting next to him discussing art, was a different matter altogether. Basking in the attention, Fuchs felt like the man he once was: powerful, in control, respected. A heady cocktail that made his heart beat faster.
‘We are ready for you, Monsieur Moreau’, said Celia, walking up to the two men sitting by the window.
‘Before we start, Miss Crawford, I would like to ask you something’, said Fuchs.
‘There was a man sitting in the back of the car with you. He looked familiar. May I ask who he was?’
Celia froze, her mind racing. He saw Jack! she thought. [_What am I going to tell him? _]Fuchs was watching Celia carefully. ‘That was Jack Rogan, the writer, who addressed the auction about the painting’s history the other day’, she replied after a while. Celia decided that this was not the time to gamble: if Fuchs had recognised Jack, which was possible, then any attempt to deceive him could have unwelcome consequences. Coming clean appeared the best option.
‘I thought I recognised him’, said Fuchs, frowning. ‘Please tell me, what is he doing here, Miss Crawford?’
Celia had been expecting the next question, and was ready for it. ‘We, that is the paper and I, thought it could be helpful to have him stand by in case Monsieur Moreau had some questions—you know—about the other painting …’ she replied casually.
‘I see’, said Fuchs, obviously satisfied with the answer. ‘So why not ask him to join us?’
Celia realised she had to be careful how she answered this. ‘We thought that might be inappropriate, considering—’
‘Our previous, let’s say, dealings?’ Fuchs cut in, laughing.
‘Exactly’, said Celia, relieved.
‘I appreciate your tact, Miss Crawford, but we are all adults here. I have nothing personal against Mr Rogan’, Fuchs lied. ‘In fact, I would very much like to meet him. So, why don’t you ask him to join us?’
Celia looked at Fuchs, surprised. It wasn’t what she had expected. ‘I’ll call him right away, if you wish’, she said.
‘Please do that’, said Fuchs, and turned towards Moreau, who was talking to the cameraman. ‘Ready to start?’ asked Fuchs.
‘Just about’, said Moreau. ‘This is the moment when I feel like a forensic pathologist, dissecting other men’s genius’, he joked.
Moreau adjusted the spotlights set up by the crew, which were washing over the painting, and stood back, the silence in the room deafening. At first, he looked at the painting from a distance and then slowly walked closer until he stood directly in front of it. With his hands folded behind his back, he let his expert eyes roam methodically over the canvas, taking in all the details of the painting: the colours, the brushstrokes, and countless other aspects only a lifetime of experience can interpret and absorb.
As his mind began to process the vast amount of information, something stood out: a name. David Herzl, thought Moreau. [_All the hallmarks are there. _]Then his eyes came to rest on the frame.
‘Now this is interesting’, said Moreau, looking at the frame. ‘I am almost certain that this is one of Monet’s standard issue picture frames. However, to be sure I would have to examine the back of the painting, which we’ll do later.’
Yes! I knew it, thought Fuchs, sensing victory.
‘The frame is a carved and gilded frame from the Régence period and appears to be from Monet’s original selection. Several of his paintings are still in his standard frame, notably the Grainstack, which he sold in 1891 to Horatio Lamb of Boston; catalogue number twenty-four’, Moreau droned on.
‘Frames can be very important pointers and most helpful in establishing provenance. However, authenticity can never rely on such considerations alone. A holistic approach is needed. The focus must always be on the painting itself.’ Moreau paused, stepped back and for a long moment stood perfectly still. He kept staring at the painting, looking at something only he could see. Mesmerised, Celia watched the fascinating little man do his stuff.
The housekeeper knocked and opened the door. ‘Mr Rogan’, she announced, and stepped aside. Celia walked over to Jack. ‘He saw you. I didn’t know what else to do’, she whispered. ‘He wants to meet you.’
‘It’s all right; don’t worry’, said Jack, and walked confidently into the room.
‘Ah, Mr Rogan,’ said Fuchs, ‘we meet at last.’
‘I was hoping this would happen one day’, said Jack, and walked over to the old man in the wheelchair to shake his hand.
Fuchs pointed to an empty chair next to him. ‘Please take a seat, Mr Rogan’, said Fuchs. ‘My life is full of surprises lately, and they all have one thing in common: you.’
‘You don’t say’, said Jack casually, and sat down.
‘I always wanted to meet the man who cost me millions. I just didn’t think it would be today.’
By August 1942, the mass deportations from Warsaw were in full swing. As part of the wider ‘Operation Reinhard’, Grossaktion Warschau had only one aim: to deport thousands of Jews from the ghetto to Treblinka for extermination. Between 23 July and 21 September 1942, some three hundred thousand ghetto residents were sent to the death camps.
Berenger Krakowski walked over to the window and looked down into the street below. ‘Look at them’, he said, watching another column of several hundred march silently towards the Umschlagsplatz on Stawki Street, the notorious collection point. There, herded together like cattle, they would wait for the arrival of the trains.
‘What are we going to do, Berenger?’ asked Ruth, his wife. ‘They are coming closer; it will be our turn any time now.’
‘I spoke to Mandel again yesterday’, said Krakowski. Emanuel Mandel was a Jewish ghetto policeman working for the SS, who was helping the Germans to keep order in the crowded ghetto. Krakowski had given violin lessons to Mandel’s daughter and was on reasonably good terms with him. He had fostered the relationship and used it as a source of valuable intelligence of what was happening in the ghetto. Being one step ahead of the SS could make the difference between life and death.
‘What about?’ said Ruth.
‘The Germans are looking for paintings, especially impressionists…’
‘Not sure, but Mandel seems to think that he can prevent our deportation if we can come up with something.’
‘It’s all we have left; we’ve sold everything else, except for the violin.’
‘No Berenger! You can’t do that!’
‘If the painting can save us, why not? I’ve taken it to Herzl.’
‘To make us a copy. If we give them the painting, at least we’ll have something to remind us …’
Ruth walked over to her husband and put her arms around him. ‘You are a good man, Berenger’, she said, and kissed him on the cheek. ‘Do what’s best for us.’
David Herzl was a talented painter, but in the ghetto, he was known as a master forger. Krakowski and Herzl were close friends, and when Krakowski told him that he was thinking of giving his Monet to the Germans to avoid transportation, Herzl offered to copy it for him.
Krakowski walked into Herzl’s ‘studio’ hidden in the back of a damp cellar. ‘How’s it going?’ he asked.
‘See for yourself.’ Herzl pointed to his easel.
‘Incredible’, said Krakowski. The painting was almost finished. ‘I can’t tell them apart. I don’t know how you do it, David; it’s perfect.’
Herzl smiled. ‘I can’t create, but I can copy’, said Herzl, slapping his friend on the back.
‘Mandel came around again today. He wants to arrange something for tomorrow if possible. About the painting, I mean.’
‘A sale? What do you mean?’
‘Apparently, the SS want to bring someone over, some big-shot from Berlin who wants to buy original paintings here in the ghetto. He’s especially interested in impressionists.’
‘Buy, you say? How weird.’
‘That’s what I thought. But who are we to question the Germans, eh? They are all mad, right?’
‘You can collect the painting in the morning; I’ll be finished by then. I’ll keep the copy for you here until you’re ready. I’ll even frame it for you.’
‘Thank you, my friend. Perhaps one day I can do something for you in return. I’ll let Mandel know.’
Herzl worked through the night to finish the painting. Finally satisfied, he stood back and smiled. It was one of the best copies he had ever made. Exhausted, he lay down on his bunk next to the easel to get some sleep. He closed his eyes, but the much needed sleep wouldn’t come. Instead, Monet’s Little Sparrow in the Garden began to whisper to him, seductively suggesting something daring. Covered in sweat, Herzl tossed and turned restlessly in his bunk, and tried to put the crazy idea out of his mind, but it wouldn’t go away. Finally, he sat up and lit a candle. Why not? he thought. It’s good enough. They’ll never notice the difference, those barbarians!
Feeling better for having made a decision, Herzl walked over to the original painting, took it off the wall and began to carefully pull the frame apart.
The convertible Mercedes pulled up in front of Krakowski’s dilapidated apartment block at precisely noon the next day. The driver jumped out of the car and opened the back door for the SS major and his young guest.
‘Here we are, Herr Fuchs’, said the major, and got out of the car.
Mandel was waiting nervously at the entrance, cap in hand, and watched the major come strutting towards him. ‘Is everything ready?’ demanded the major.
‘Jawohl, Herr Sturmbannfuehrer’, said Mandel, standing to attention. ‘First floor.’
‘Show us the way.’
‘Jawohl, Herr Sturmbannfuehrer.’
Wearing his best—and only—suit, Krakowski was waiting in his tiny, sparsely furnished apartment. He had sent his wife and children to stay with neighbours to avoid any embarrassment or, God forbid, unintended offence. SS Officers were totally unpredictable; anything could happen.
The painting was hanging in its usual place above the sideboard. Krakowski had been painstakingly briefed by Mandel earlier that day. He had been told what to say and how to say it, how much to ask for the painting, and how to explain why he wanted to sell it. He had also been told that the buyer would ask for a receipt. Krakowski had pen and paper ready as instructed, and was waiting for his visitors to arrive.
Mandel opened the door and let the major and his guest enter. Ignoring Krakowski completely, the major walked over to the sideboard and pointed to the painting. ‘This is it, Herr Fuchs’, he said, I hope this is what you are looking for.’
Krakowski watched the tall young man follow the major across to the painting. Impeccably dressed in a grey double-breasted suit, white shirt, silk tie and black shoes so shiny they almost sparkled, the young man pulled a silver cigarette case out of his pocket. Turning to the major, he offered him a cigarette and they both lit up.
‘This is a truly remarkable painting’, said the young man. He bent down to look at the signature at the bottom of the painting. ‘A Monet; no doubt about it. And you wish to sell it, Herr—’
‘Krakowski’, interjected Mandel.
‘Krakowski’, repeated the young visitor. Krakowski then went through the prearranged charade and said all the things he had been instructed to say. After that, it only took a few minutes to complete the transaction. The major and his satisfied guest then swept out of the room followed by the driver, carrying the painting under his arm.
Slowly, Krakowski closed the door and then stared at the empty space above the sideboard. He felt as if part of his life had been torn away from him, never to return.
For the next hour, Krakowski wandered aimlessly through the ghetto until he found himself in front of Herzl’s studio.
‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost’, said Herzl, looking at his friend. ‘Come in.’
Herzl reached behind his bunk and pulled out a half-empty bottle of schnapps; a precious commodity obtained on the thriving black market. Krakowski took a swig, making the back of his throat burn with welcome pain. ‘Cheer up, not all is lost, my friend’, said Herzl. ‘You still have this—remember?’ He pointed to the painting on the easel. ‘I framed it for you this morning.’
Feeling better, Krakowski walked over to the painting and looked at it. ‘My God, David, I could swear it’s the real thing; thank you.’
Herzl smiled. ‘Take it home, my friend’, he said. ‘It will make you feel better. Also, for your family’s sake …’
‘You’re right; I’ll do that.’
Herzl took the painting off the easel and handed it to his friend.
‘I can’t tell you what this means to me’, said Krakowski. He reached into his pocket, took out two small gold bars and placed them on the easel. ‘Take this, it’s for you. This is what they gave me for the painting. I can’t keep it. The painting was never for sale.’
‘I understand’, said Herzl, and gulped down the last of the schnapps in the bottle. ‘We’ll buy some more of this.’
What Krakowski couldn’t have known was that the gold given to him in payment for the painting by the impeccably dressed young man was dental gold. Gold that had been harvested from the bodies of dead Jews in the concentration camps. Gold fillings mainly, and bridgework, broken out of the jaws of the corpses by other Jews, doing the unthinkable to stay alive. This gold was then melted down, and often mixed with gold from other sources—mainly gold looted from other victims’ possessions on their way to the gas chambers—to disguise its true origin. It was then stamped with the German eagle insignia, the Reichsadler, and given a new, ‘respectable’ identity acceptable to the Swiss bankers before being transferred to ‘neutral’ Switzerland to finance the war.
What Krakowski didn’t know either was that Herzl had exchanged the painting in the original frame with his copy, and that the painting a very dejected Krakowski was carrying home was in fact his original Monet, given to him by the famous artist himself on that sunny afternoon in the master’s garden many years ago.
Moreau instructed the cameraman to take some more close-ups and reached for his notebook. ‘There is one final task left’, he said, and pulled a large magnifying glass out of his kitbag. ‘If I’m right, we should have the decisive answer shortly.’ Moreau adjusted the spotlight and began to methodically inspect the painting with the magnifying glass. He began at the top left-hand corner and then moved slowly to the right, and then back to the left again, covering every square inch of the painting.
‘What is he doing?’ asked Fuchs, leaning forward to see better.
‘Looking for something, I’d say’, replied Jack. ‘He’s certainly very thorough.’
‘Your book created quite a storm’, said Fuchs, changing direction. ‘You pressed all the right buttons, even after all these years.’
‘It took on a momentum of its own,’ said Jack, ‘and became unstoppable. I was perhaps more surprised than most by its unexpected success.’
‘It’s always difficult to interpret history after such a long time. Much becomes distorted, memories play tricks on people, and looking at the past through the lens of the present will always rewrite history.’
‘There’s a lot of truth in that’, conceded Jack. ‘However, facts are facts, whichever way we look at them.’
‘Quite, provided they are the right facts. A bit like what Monsieur Moreau is doing right now, I suppose. Uncovering facts.’
‘You seem very certain,’ said Jack, ‘about your painting, I mean.’
‘I am’, Fuchs said calmly.
‘Just as you were about the origin of the gold shipments your bank received from the Nazis during the war?’
Fuchs shot Jack a withering look that would have sent an attacking tiger running for cover. ‘I didn’t know about the dental gold’, snapped Fuchs. ‘None of us did. Our bank always acted in good faith. We were neutral. It was all strictly business.’
Jack realised he had almost overstepped the mark and decided to change his approach to placate Fuchs. ‘I understand’, he said. ‘It was a long time ago. Would you perhaps be interested in an interview to set the record straight?’ he asked, dangling a carrot in front of Fuchs’ ego he knew would be quite irresistible.
‘Could be’, replied Fuchs, surprised. ‘An addendum to your book, perhaps?’
‘It would depend—’
‘On what?’ Fuchs interrupted.
‘On what you tell me, of course.’
‘Here it is!’ Moreau cried out. ‘Just as I thought. Hidden in the lily pond; how ingenious!’
‘What exactly?’ asked Fuchs. He wheeled his chair over to the painting.
‘Here, have a look’, said Moreau. He handed Fuchs his magnifying glass, and pointed to a certain spot in the lily pond.
‘What am I looking for?’
‘Something that doesn’t belong in a lily pond.’
Fuchs raised the magnifying glass, bent forward and, for what seemed an eternity, kept staring at the painting. Looking suddenly quite pale and shaken, he let the magnifying glass fall into his lap and turned around to face Moreau. ‘Is, is this a p-prank?’ he stammered.
‘Far from it. It’s a signature.’
‘Are you telling me that what looks like a tiny Star of David and a small heart under this rock here is a signature?’
‘It is’, Moreau replied, elated. ‘And not just any signature, but the signature of David Herzl.’
‘Who is David Herzl?’ demanded Fuchs, becoming angry.
‘David Herzl was one of Europe’s most accomplished forgers during the war. He always signed his work in ingenious ways, with a Star of David, obviously for David, and a small heart for Herzl, which means heart in German. He lived in the Warsaw Ghetto and was killed during the uprising in 1943. If it’s any consolation, this is without doubt one of the best forgeries of a Monet I’ve come across. In its own way, it’s a masterpiece.’
Jack admired the way Fuchs appeared to recover from the humiliating blow. Fuchs invited everyone, the crew included, to join him for lunch in the elegant dining room on the ground floor. This had obviously been planned earlier, because everything was ready by the time they went downstairs.
Fuchs seemed calm and controlled, but inside he was seething. Something that was supposed to have propelled him into the limelight had unexpectedly turned into a crushing defeat. His reputation as an astute art collector and connoisseur was on the line. Astute art collectors don’t buy forgeries, and collectors who do, become the butt of jokes and are ridiculed. All that was left, therefore, was damage control. To have this controversial episode splashed across the pages of his beloved [_New York Times _]was unthinkable, and had to be prevented at all cost. He had to find a solution quickly, while all the players were present.
All his life, Fuchs had been a master tactician who knew how to deal with the unexpected. He had navigated the family bank through the difficult and dangerous war years and made a fortune. He had seen people in high places come and go, and powerful regimes sink into the dustbin of history. He was therefore well equipped to deal with the problem at hand: he had to keep his embarrassment out of the public domain, and to do that, he needed a plan.
Racing through the events of the morning, he was formulating his approach. He knew that Jack and Benjamin Krakowski were close; he knew that Krakowski was the man of the moment with his generous donation of the auction proceeds to the Rosen Foundation. He also knew that Celia had written several leading articles about this. To therefore have Krakowski’s father exposed as a dishonest man who sold forgeries, regardless of the desperate times and circumstances, could cause some unwelcome character damage and take the gloss off the generous gesture and his reputation.
One of Fuchs’ many strengths has always been his ability to read people and find their weak spots. He therefore knew instinctively that he was on the right track.
‘Monsieur Moreau, I must congratulate you. The way you solved this intriguing puzzle has been truly inspirational.’
‘Thank you. I know it wasn’t the result you expected,’ replied Moreau, enjoying his second glass of splendid vintage Bordeaux, ‘but we are all ruled by facts.’
‘Quite. But something puzzles me …’
‘What is that?’ asked Moreau.
‘The frame. You said that in your opinion, the frame is an original. I think you called it one of Monet’s original selection frames; something like that.’
‘Yes, there’s no doubt about that.’
‘An original frame with a forgery?’
‘That puzzled me too’, said Moreau. ‘But facts …’
‘And the original painting you examined before the auction had a simple, quite ordinary frame, you say?’
‘Yes, it did.’
‘Certainly not a Monet original—right?’
‘No. it was added much later.’
‘That would suggest, would it not, that the deception was quite deliberate. I mean, when I purchased the painting from Berenger Krakowski, I was deliberately sold a forgery with an original Monet frame to make it look authentic.’
‘One could look at it that way,’ conceded Moreau, ‘but we’ll never know, will we?’
Fuchs turned to Celia sitting on his right. ‘What an eventful morning, Miss Crawford’, he said. ‘It would appear that Benjamin Krakowski’s father wasn’t exactly the man we all thought he was.’
‘What are you suggesting, Herr Fuchs?’ asked Celia, a little irritated.
‘Well, I bought the painting from him in good faith, paid for it with gold as requested, got a proper receipt for the transaction, and was sold a forgery, albeit apparently a very good one. These are the facts, Miss Crawford, whichever way we look at the situation.’
Jack was carefully watching Fuchs and realised at once what he was doing. He thought it was time to step in. ‘That’s one way to look at it, but this whole episode has turned into—forgive me if I speak frankly—an embarrassment for you, has it not?’
‘There’s no denying that’, said Fuchs cheerfully. So far, the conversation was going exactly as he had hoped it would. He was getting closer to where he wanted to go. ‘However, you have to admit that the story has lost its gloss. The potential controversy has gone away. So, I have to ask myself, why write anything about it at all?’
Celia looked at Fuchs, surprised, but Jack had seen this coming all along. ‘Let’s cut to the chase, Herr Fuchs, shall we?’ said Jack, turning serious. He folded his napkin in half and reached for his wineglass. ‘If I understand you correctly, you would prefer it if we, that is, Miss Crawford’s paper, would forget all about this, and not publish anything about you and the forgery at all. Am I right?’
Fuchs looked at Jack, and smiled. He recognised in Jack a man he could deal with, because he understood the rules of the game: give and take; something for something; compromise. ‘Exactly’, said Fuchs.
‘And why should we do that?’ interjected Celia. ‘After all, we have invested in this story. At your request, I might add.’
‘Because of what I’m about to offer you in return.’
‘And what might that be?’ asked Jack, admiring the cunning old man’s tactics.
‘I will take care of all the expenses, reimburse the paper in full, pay for everything it has spent on this story.’
Jack took a sip of wine and watched Fuchs carefully. ‘And?’
‘I will agree to a comprehensive interview with you and Miss Crawford about your book—Dental Gold and Other Horrors—no holds barred. I assure you, I can fill in many of the gaps, set the record straight and, add a few surprises.’ Fuchs paused to let this sink in. ‘And,’ he continued, ‘Mr Krakowski’s reputation remains intact without a slur on the family name, or the painting for that matter. An important consideration I would have thought, especially in light of recent events: the auction … the donation … and the mystery buyer you are about to reveal. Let’s be frank, a story about a forgery could only muddy the waters and cast a shadow over everything, don’t you think?’ said Fuchs cheerfully, and reached for his glass. ‘And that’s certainly not what you would want, is it?’ he added quietly.
Celia shot Jack a meaningful look, the question on her face obvious.
‘Would you excuse us for a moment’, said Jack, and stood up. ‘Miss Crawford and I need a word in private.’
‘By all means’, said Fuchs, and raised his glass, confident of having won the argument.
‘I think we made the right decision here’, said Jack on their way back to London. They had just left Bern airport and were flying over the Alps.
Celia looked out the window, enjoying the glow of the setting sun reflected on the snow-covered peaks floating by. ‘I hope so, Jack.’
‘Your editor seemed pleased.’
‘Why wouldn’t he be? Thanks to you, I get to interview Isis, the megastar, and break the story about the mystery buyer. Without doubt the story of the moment. And then there’s the interview with Fuchs. No holds barred—remember? You’ll get a lot of publicity out of that, and my paper comes along for the ride. And as Fuchs quite rightly pointed out, the forgery story has certainly lost its controversy appeal. Not bad. I just don’t like being manipulated, especially by an old rogue like Fuchs.’
Jack began to laugh. ‘You must admit, he played this to perfection. You have to admire him for that. And, he’s paying all of the expenses. Your paper would have liked that too.’
‘I suppose so, but—’
‘Celia, this is the real world. You have to be flexible; prepared to change your mind. I think we’ve come out way in front.’
‘I think you’re right. Thanks for everything.’
‘We should drink to that’, said Jack, and reached for the bottle of champagne Lola had left for them in the ice bucket. She was in the cockpit flying the plane.
Celia watched Jack open the bottle. He’s without doubt the most exciting man I’ve met in a long time, she thought. Time to make a move. Sensing the growing tension, Jack looked at her, a mischievous sparkle in his eyes.
‘Are we going to have an affair?’ asked Celia, and put her hand on Jack’s thigh.
‘I hope so’, replied Jack, trying to sound nonchalant.
‘I don’t believe it’, said Celia.
‘Bullshit! It’s the sunset …’
‘Nonsense! Come here, I wanted to do this for a long time’, said Celia, her voice sounding hoarse.
‘Kiss a country boy, silly!’
Jack was visiting Tristan and Countess Kuragin at her chateau in France, when he received a phone call from Isis.
‘I just took delivery of a mystery parcel, hand-delivered by special courier’, said Isis. ‘He had quite specific instructions and I had to sign for it myself.’
‘Oh? What is it?’
‘A surprise. You should really come over and see this for yourself.’
‘I’ll catch the Eurostar in the morning’, said Jack, his curiosity aroused. ‘I need a break anyway. I’ve been working on my Fuchs interview notes for a couple of weeks now, trying to incorporate them into my book. It’s tedious, but potentially quite explosive stuff, especially now that he’s dead.’ Fuchs had passed away in his sleep two weeks earlier, after contracting pneumonia. ‘My editors are on my back, and my publicist is calling twice a day. I hate pressure!’
‘Poor boy. That’s what happens when you’re famous. Don’t let them rattle you.’
‘Easier said than done. Any hints?’
‘Little Sparrow in the Garden.’
‘Now you’ve really got me intrigued’, said Jack.
‘I’ll send a car to pick you up from the station. See you tomorrow.’
Isis’ driver was waiting for Jack with the black Bentley at St Pancras station the next morning and drove him straight to the Time Machine Studios. Lola greeted Jack downstairs and took him up to Isis’ apartment.
‘What’s all this about?’ asked Jack, enjoying the familiar ride in the glass lift. Lola shook her head. ‘Come on, you can tell me.’
‘No way! She’ll skin me alive if I let anything slip.’
‘Oh. That important, is it?’
‘You’ll see in a minute.’
Isis looked like someone who had just stepped off the catwalk. Her impeccable make-up, perfect hairdo and the latest creation by one of her favourite fashion designers, told Jack that Isis was definitely back to her true self again. She hurried towards the lift, her high heels clop-clopping on the marble, threw her arms around Jack and kissed him on both cheeks, French style. ‘You’re in for a big surprise’, she said, pointing to the easel standing in the middle of the room.
‘Little Sparrow in the Garden, still in pride of place, I see’, said Jack.
‘It is, but what do you think is next to it?’ asked Isis, pointing to another easel covered with a black velvet cloth.
‘No idea. Something new you’ve bought?’
‘No. I didn’t have to buy it. It was a gift.’
‘What do you think, Lola; shall we put this wretch out of his misery and show him?’ asked Isis.
‘Might as well.’
Isis walked over to the easel and began to slowly lift the black cloth like a magician revealing the impossible. The only thing missing was the drum roll. As the cloth inched closer to the bottom of the frame, Isis quickly pulled it off with a flourish and stood back.
‘I don’t believe it!’ said Jack, completely taken by surprise. He walked up to the frame and looked at the familiar painting. ‘How … did … you …?
‘Fuchs left it to me.’
‘I don’t believe it!’
‘I received a formal letter from his executors. Oh, and this is for you’, said Isis. She handed Jack a sealed envelope with ‘Jack Rogan’ written across the front in a spidery handwriting.
Jack opened the envelope, unfolded the piece of paper inside, and began to read:
I enjoyed sparring with you during our recent interviews more than I like to admit. Facing the truth for someone like me is never easy, but you have always been fair and objective in your dealings with me, and for that I am grateful.
You have given me your word not to publish the story of the forged painting whilst I was alive, and you have honoured that pledge. By the time you receive this, you will have been released from that promise.
I have left my art collection to various galleries around the world. True works of art can never belong to just one person. We are but temporary custodians of other men’s genius, which must be shared with the world.
As for my forged ‘Little Sparrow in the Garden’, I have thought long and hard about what to do with it. I believe the right solution here is to reunite the two paintings, as both share a unique history and therefore belong together. That is why I have left my painting to Isis. I know she has great plans and will use her painting to raise money for charitable causes. If my ‘Little Sparrow in the Garden’ can in some small way contribute to this, perhaps as a curiosity, then I am content.
It has been a pleasure to get to know you, Jack. You have brought a little excitement and sunshine into an old man’s life.
‘Come on, Jack, are you going to tell us what it says?’ asked Isis impatiently.
‘Sorry. Of course’, replied Jack, and then read the note out aloud, his voice solemn, as if he were reading out a will, which in a way of course, it was. When he tried to slip the note back into the envelope, he noticed that there was something else inside. He pulled out another piece of paper, looked at it and smiled.
‘What’s that?’ asked Isis.
‘I’ll show you’, replied Jack, and held up the piece of paper. It was the receipt for the painting, reluctantly signed by Berenger Krakowski with a heavy heart in the Warsaw Ghetto on that fateful day in 1942.
If you’ve enjoyed meeting some of the main characters in the Jack Rogan Mysteries and are not already familiar with my books, you may wish to find out more about Jack’s adventures.
To pique your interest, I have included excerpts from all three books for your enjoyment. You won’t be disappointed; promise!
The Empress Holds the Key
The Disappearance of Anna Popov
The Hidden Genes of Professor K
In 2013, I released my first adventure thriller–The Empress Holds the Key.
Journalist Jack Rogan knows a great story when he finds one. A charred old photograph found in the ruins of a burnt-out Blue Mountains cottage hints at dark secrets, and he unwittingly reignites an ancient and deadly quest for a holy relic mysteriously erased from the pages of history.
In pursuit of a suspected Nazi war criminal, Federal Police officer Jana Gonski joins forces with Rogan, barrister and amateur archaeologist Marcus Carrington QC, and celebrated composer Benjamin Krakowski. Together they uncover a murky web of intrigue and greed, hoards of Nazi gold, and hidden Swiss bank accounts. All of these implicate wealthy banker Sir Eric Newman. When Newman goes on trial, unexpected clues are discovered that point the way to a mystery that has haunted the Catholic Church for centuries.
On a dangerous journey to find the relic, Rogan and his companions trace links back as far as the reign of Akhenaten, the heretic pharaoh of ancient Egypt, and King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. What is this dark secret guarded by the Knights Templar, and so feared by the Vatican? Will religious fanatics foil the quest, which could destroy the very foundations of their Church and challenge Christianity itself?
A disturbing, edge-of-your-seat historical mystery thriller
Jack Rogan Mysteries Book 2
We carefully removed the last stone blocking the entry to the burial chamber, and held our breath. Peering inside, we saw a large sarcophagus partially covered with sand. No other treasures—tomb robbers had probably seen to that centuries ago. Silent, we entered and approached the stone chest, its exquisite hieroglyphs whispering to us from the distant past.
Our professor pointed to the inscriptions on top of the broken lid, his hand shaking with excitement. Barely able to speak, he said they told stories of great battles, conquered lands and glory. It appeared the tomb belonged to a general who was close to the pharaoh. Our spirits soared; a discovery like this only comes along once.
After the excitement had died down, the professor cleared his throat, a smile on his face. ‘This isn’t bad, guys, but don’t get too carried away’, he said, pulling us back down to earth. ‘What do you think would be the ultimate find?’ he asked, throwing us a challenge.
I’m sure he was only teasing, but a heated debate erupted at once, the ensuing discussion continuing well into the evening as we waited for the boat to take us back across the Nile to Cairo.
At first there were many suggestions but then, quite unexpectedly, we all agreed that one particular artefact, which had mysteriously disappeared from the pages of history a long time ago, would qualify for that distinction.
This was remarkable, because scholars from different parts of the world rarely agree on matters like this. However, on this occasion all of us—Christians, Muslims, and Jews—had somehow come to share the same view.
It was an unforgettable moment; it turned into a moment of destiny and became the inspiration for this book.
Leura, Blue Mountains, Australia
Greater Germany, on the Swiss border: November 1944
The major looked affectionately at the sleeping Doberman curled up on the seat beside him. Slowly, he took off his gloves, stroked the dog’s shiny coat and then ran his fingers playfully along the open violin case resting on his knees.
After a while, he looked out the window and, recognising where they were, tapped his driver on the back. ‘Stop the car and wait for the others. We’re almost there.’
The driver slowed and pulled the powerful Mercedes to the side of the road. After switching off the engine, he unfolded a large map and began to look for the inconspicuous track he remembered that lead down to the lake.
Meanwhile, the major turned and watched the armoured personnel carrier slowly crawling up the pass behind them. He pulled out his silver cigarette case engraved with a small swastika, which Himmler had given him. If Heinrich only knew what we’d just done! he thought, all hell would break loose. By driving through the night and using only back roads, they’d managed to avoid patrols and roadblocks. Himmler, of all people, would know that leaving Auschwitz with two prisoners without the necessary permits wasn’t easy, even for a member of the SS. And then there was the precious cargo …
Benjamin Krakowski tried to shield his brother from the icy wind rocking the open truck. He put his arm around his brother’s bony shoulders and pulled him towards his chest.
‘Where do you think they’re taking us?’ asked his brother, staring up at the snow-covered peaks ahead of them.
[_‘Shut up, David! Do you want them to beat us again—or worse?’ _]whispered Benjamin. He glanced anxiously at the guards sitting on wooden crates in the back and squeezed his brother’s arm.
‘No’, replied David, huddling closer.
Fear could no longer keep Benjamin awake. Almost delirious from hunger and the numbing cold, he closed his eyes and drifted into a restless sleep that his exhausted body craved so much. Unable to relax, he again heard his father beseeching him: ‘Benjamin, listen carefully … There isn’t much time! Promise me you’ll do exactly as I tell you … You must finish what I’ve begun … You are the one … do you understand? And remember, the Empress holds the key …’
‘I promise, Father’, murmured Benjamin. ‘Yes; the Empress holds the key …’
The personnel carrier followed the black Mercedes down to the lake and stopped in front of a jetty.
‘Wake up, you lazy scum!’ shouted one of the guards, kicking Benjamin in the back. ‘Unload the crates. Move!’
One by one, the two young prisoners lifted the heavy wooden boxes off the truck and carried them across to the jetty.
‘And when you’re finished, start digging a trench over here’, the guard yelled.
‘We’re digging our own graves’, hissed David, driving his pick into the hard clay. ‘We’ve seen it all before. We have to make a run for it—now! Into that forest before it’s too late!’ he continued, pointing towards the pines with his chin. ‘Come!’
‘Are you mad?’ said Benjamin. ‘They’ll shoot us before we make it to the first tree.’
David ignored his brother’s warning and slowly worked his way towards the guard standing closest to the trench. Then, lifting his pick, he slammed the pointed end into the back of the guard’s knee. Taken by surprise, the screaming soldier lost his balance, dropped his gun, and fell against the crates, splitting one open. Three shiny gold bars tumbled unnoticed into the mud.
Benjamin froze. Instead of running after his brother, he stared at the soldier thrashing in agony on the ground in front of him.
Startled by the scream, the major looked across to the jetty. He unleashed his dog, raised his arm, and pointed to the prisoner running towards the forest. ‘Arco—there. Catch!’ he shouted.
Before the other guards had realised what had happened, David was lying face down in the mud. Pinned to the ground by the major’s Doberman on his back—fangs bared and snarling—he was certain he was about to be torn apart.
The major pointed to a dead tree. ‘Take him over there’, he ordered. ‘Strip him!’
The angry guards ripped the threadbare prison rags from the boy’s thin frame. Terrified and shaking, David looked like a cornered animal as he tried in vain to cover his genitals with bleeding hands.
‘Now, string him up from the tree over there’, shouted the major. ‘The way we saw the Ukrainians reward deserters—remember? That’ll teach him a lesson.’
‘Why don’t we use this instead?’ suggested one of the guards, pointing to an iron cross wedged into the rock behind the tree.
‘A crucifixion?’ said the major, laughing. ‘That would be most appropriate; he’s a Jew after all. Look, it’s too small, even for a miserable wretch like this—see? Pity.’
Suddenly, a motor boat materialised out of the mist and approached the jetty. A tall young man in a fur coat waved his slouch hat, jumped ashore, and hurried towards the major. ‘Is it all here?’ he asked.
‘See for yourself, Anton’, replied the major. He pointed to the crates and embraced his friend.
Anton began to examine the markings on the lids by tracing the familiar German eagle with the tip of his finger. Satisfied, he turned towards the major. ‘Congratulations!’ he said. ‘I don’t know how you did it. Let’s get them on board. Quickly!’
The major opened the door of the Mercedes and lifted the violin case off the back seat.
‘Taking music lessons?’ teased Anton, smiling.
‘No. This has nothing to do with music. This is an instrument of history’, the major replied gravely, patting the case. ‘Come, let’s go; they’ve almost finished loading the crates.’
The two friends hurried down the embankment and stopped in front of the dead tree. Despite the horrific beating, David was still alive. The major reached for his holster.
‘Hold it right there’, said Anton. He pulled a camera out of his pocket and took a photo. ‘One for the family album?’ he added sarcastically.
The major pointed his Luger at David’s head. ‘Can you hear me?’ he demanded.
David nodded without opening his eyes.
[_‘You cannot run away from destiny’, _]the major whispered calmly, and shot David in the temple. The virgin snow, turned crimson by the hot droplets of David’s splattered blood, began to weep.
When he turned around, the major saw Benjamin staring at him from across the trench. Their eyes locked and contempt met fear. Then, slowly, the major lifted his gun, took aim, and pulled the trigger. ‘Neither can you, Jew boy’, he snarled, calmly slipping the Luger back into its holster.
‘Bury them’, barked the major. ‘Heil Hitler!’ He hurried across the gangplank and saluted his men standing to attention by the jetty.
As soon as the powerful diesel engines had roared to life, Anton gave an order. Two sailors armed with machine guns stepped out of the wheelhouse and opened fire on the major’s men. Torn apart by the unexpected hail of bullets, the hapless men collapsed, their arms still raised in silent salute.
Anton looked at the major. ‘No witnesses—remember?’ he said with a shrug, and climbed below deck.
Benjamin opened his eyes. Darkness. He quickly closed them again. Silence. Licking his lips, he tasted blood. Barely able to breathe in the confined space, he tried to move his aching limbs but couldn’t; something heavy was pressing on his back and shoulders. It was the arm of a dead soldier lying on top of him. Slowly, the numbness drained away and his whole body began to throb with pain. Flashes of memory returned.
I’m not dead!
Fear gave him strength. Slowly, he began to claw through the loose clay towards the top. Breathless and retching, he pushed his head out into the open and gasped for air.
The sleet hitting his face like icy needles revived him. He opened his mouth, a silent scream on his parched lips, then searched all around him, squinting through half-closed eyes into the blinding daylight, scanning the empty clearing. The soldiers were all gone, the crates had disappeared and there was no boat at the jetty. The burnt-out shells of the armoured truck and the Mercedes smouldered in the mist, filling the bracing cold air with an acrid stench of burnt rubber. Over the brooding lake the mountain fog hovered like a shroud. Benjamin cautiously turned his aching head, and began to look for his brother’s tree. It was just behind him, with part of a severed rope still tied to one of the branches.
‘David!’ Benjamin cried out. ‘Noooo.’ He covered his face with blood-stained hands, fell to his knees, and began to pray.
The thunderstorm blew in from the south, sending dark clouds racing across the night sky like a celestial pirate fleet raiding the stars. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck an old eucalypt; it split its trunk in half and set it on fire. The rugged sandstone cliffs trembled as the thunder roared across the dry valley. At first, the flames struggled to ignite the tough bark of the doomed tree. Soon however, nourished by a gust of wind, they formed a blazing ring around the base of the giant and began their deadly ascent towards its parched crown. Defeated, the burning trunk crashed to the forest floor, sending a cloud of lethal sparks dancing towards their next victim. The bushfire had begun.
Two Rural Fire Service volunteers stood on an exposed escarpment high above the burning forest, their eyes firmly fixed on the fire spreading through the gullies below. They knew the real danger was always the wind, and the wind was picking up. The old timber cottage behind them stood directly in the path of the advancing blaze. Unless the wind changed direction, the fire would soon reach the cottage. A third volunteer—a young woman in sweaty yellow overalls—was kneeling on top of the roof. Frantically cleaning out the blocked gutters with her bare hands, she too was anxiously watching the fire.
The wind didn’t change direction. The fire jumped across a waterfall and burst into a densely wooded gorge just below the cottage. Trapped in the narrow gorge, the wind intensified, funnelling the blaze upwards. As it reached the top of the escarpment, the firestorm roared out into the open and raced towards the cottage. Moments later, the cottage drowned in a sea of flames.
Jack Rogan raced along the motorway in his MG and was fast approaching the foothills of the Blue Mountains, a popular holiday retreat one hundred kilometres west of Sydney. He enjoyed driving fast, but not that morning. A familiar feeling began to claw at his empty stomach—danger. Chewing his bottom lip, Jack smiled; danger had a twin—excitement. Jack loved excitement. The bright morning in Sydney suddenly gave way to a gloomy twilight yellow-red; foreboding of the bushfires that lay ahead. The sun had disappeared behind a giant, mushroom-shaped cloud of smoke, and visibility was poor. Large flakes of ash rained down from above, smudging the windscreen. Singed gum leaves carried along by the hot wind surged towards him like swarms of hungry locusts ready to attack. Jack switched on the headlights.
As he neared his destination, Jack carefully threaded his way through a convoy of fire engines and water tankers heading up the mountains and then suddenly stopped in front of a row of police cars blocking the road. Jack got out of the car, the smoke and intense heat making it difficult to breathe. The destruction ahead reminded him of a car bomb site he’d photographed in Kabul the year before. The smouldering tree trunks looked like the chimneys of a destroyed village buried under a carpet of powdery ash. Accusing fingers pointing to angry gods who have forsaken the faithful, thought Jack.
Jack walked up to a policeman and asked for the fire chief. The agitated policeman ordered him to get back into his car and leave the area. Jack’s press ID didn’t help. Neither did the baggy green shorts, crumpled t-shirt and thongs.
‘It’s all right, Officer, there’s a way around the fire’, came a familiar voice from behind him. ‘He can come with me.’
The policeman shrugged and turned away.
‘Will!’ Jack exclaimed, barely able to recognise his friend in his sooty yellow overalls and battered fire helmet. ‘Sorry it took so long; I know you said it was urgent but the traffic was diabolical.’
‘No worries. If we hurry, we might just get through’, said Will. He handed Jack a helmet and jacket, and pointed to a four-wheel drive with its engine running. ‘Hop in. It’ll get a little rough, I’m afraid. Shoes would have helped, mate’, he added, shaking his head. ‘You’ll never change.’
Will turned the car into a narrow fire trail leading into the bush. ‘As long as the wind stays like this, we should make it’, he said, wiping his brow with a wet towel. ‘One of our girls died in the firestorm this morning, just up the hill from here. Horrible; burnt beyond recognition. She was trying to save an old cottage. I’ve known her since she was a little nipper in kindergarten’, he added. ‘Her father doesn’t know yet. He’s fighting the fire on the other side of the mountains and can’t be reached. Poor bastard.’
‘But that’s not why I called you. It’s what we found under her body you’ll find interesting’, said Will, barely missing a smouldering tree trunk.
‘What is it?’ asked Jack, frowning.
‘Wait and see. We’re almost there.’
A shiver raced down Jack’s spine. Often the best stories found him in the most unlikely places. He was wondering if he was heading for just such a place.
What was left of the body of the young woman was covered with a wet tarpaulin. A group of dejected looking firefighters stood next to it, staring into space—waiting.
‘The police chopper’s on its way’, said Will. He guided Jack through the smoking ruins of the cottage towards a brick chimney leaning precariously to one side—the only structure still standing. The corrugated iron roof had collapsed and all the walls had burned to the ground.
‘That’s what we found when we moved the body’, said Will, pointing to a small green tin lying in the rubble next to the fireplace. ‘I think it was hidden somewhere inside the chimney—that’s why it hasn’t buckled.’ Will cleared away the ash next to the tin with the tip of his boot. ‘We’re supposed to leave everything just as we find it,’ he continued, lowering his voice, ‘but, well, you know how it is … curiosity …’ he said, picking up the box and opening it. ‘Here, have a look at this.’
Jack stared at a sepia photograph, slightly singed around the edges but otherwise undamaged.
‘A bit brutal, wouldn’t you say?’ said Jack, holding up the picture. ‘He’s only a kid, for Christ’s sake.’
Will pointed to the back of the photo. ‘Look, there’s a date here: November 1944.’
‘Anything else in the box?’ asked Jack.
‘Yep. All this weird stuff. Here, look.’
Jana Gonski peeled back the ivy, opened the iron gate, and walked up the moss-covered stone steps. Then she pressed the doorbell, and waited. She wasn’t surprised when no one answered. In one way, she was quite relieved. She hadn’t seen the guy in years, and their parting had occurred under circumstances—she was sure—he’d prefer to forget. Taking a deep breath, Jana looked around: the terrace house appeared deserted. Crumpled envelopes—chewed around the edges by snails—bulged out of the letterbox. Several mouldy, rolled-up newspapers were rotting on the landing.
‘I don’t have to remind you how important this is’, she recalled her boss saying. ‘The press is having a ball, the minister is screaming for answers and the Director of Public Prosecutions is breathing down my neck. Need I go on? As usual, the journalists seem to know a lot more than we do. We must get to the bottom of this—now. Do what you have to do, but do it fast—I need results!’
As the agent in charge of Special Projects, Jana was used to pressure. She dealt almost exclusively with the sensitive and the unusual.
Jana was just about to leave when the door opened and a man in faded jeans, torn at the knees, and a striped pyjama top unbuttoned to the waist, squinted out at her.
‘I can’t stand getting up this early in the morning. What do you want?’ he demanded, running his fingers through unkempt hair.
‘Still chasing that big story, Jack?’
‘Jana?’ said Jack, shielding his eyes from the sun. ‘Well, what a surprise! What have I done wrong this time?’
Jana laughed. ‘You’ve done nothing wrong except not returning my calls’, she said. ‘I’ve left several messages on your answering machine.’
‘Is that a federal offence now?’ he asked.
‘Seriously, Jack, I want to talk to you about a dead firefighter, a newspaper article, and a photograph.’
‘You’d better come in’, he said. ‘But I have to warn you, my cleaning lady took the week off …’
‘I can see,’ said Jana, smiling.
The tiny lounge room on the ground floor looked like it hadn’t seen a cleaner for at least a year. A scratched coffee table was covered in empty beer cans, bottles and crushed milk cartons, and the sofa in front of the fireplace was barely visible under layers of old newspapers, magazines and various items of crumpled clothing. A lonely ironing board stood in the middle of the room with a basket full of limp washing nearby. Newspaper cuttings littered the floor.
‘It’s been, what, five years?’ said Jack, clearing a space on the sofa for Jana to sit down. ‘I was just making coffee—would you like some?’
‘Let me help you. Is this the way to the kitchen?’ asked Jana, pointing to the back of the house.
‘It is, but even I’m a little afraid to go in there just at the moment’, said Jack. ‘You stay right here. And besides, I make excellent coffee … remember?’
‘Sure’, said Jana, crossing her legs and smiling at him.
‘Poison’, said Jack, touching his nose with his finger.
‘Beg your pardon?’
‘Dior, you’re wearing Dior’s Poison. I hope it’s not an omen.’
He’s good, thought Jana, sitting down on the sofa.
She’s obviously working out. She looks great for the wrong side of forty, thought Jack. Her simple black dress accentuated her trim, athletic body, and her short, honey-blonde hair showed off her dark tan.
After a lot of clattering around and cursing, followed by a long silence, Jack swept into the room balancing a steaming coffee plunger and two mugs on a tray. He’s put on a fresh shirt and combed his hair, Jana noticed.
‘When I take on an assignment, I often work through the night nowadays’, he said, pouring the coffee and searching the room in vain for a cigarette. ‘I hate distractions. I haven’t listened to my answering machine since my divorce last year. My ex and her lawyers used to call all the time and leave messages. Every time I called back, it cost me money. Then I just stopped listening’, he rambled on. ‘It worked, you see. They don’t bother me anymore.’ Jack drained his mug of black coffee and sat down next to Jana.
‘Sure am. So, what would you like to know?’ asked Jack.
‘Your article in last Sunday’s Herald ruffled a few feathers in parliament …’
‘That’s gratifying; I like my readers to show interest.’
‘Your pictures were rather provocative.’
‘Quite deliberately so; it was a shocking death.’
‘Surely your point wasn’t the death of the unfortunate woman, but where and how she died: “Whose property was this brave young volunteer trying to save?” “What is the meaning of the Nazi memorabilia found in the ruins of the house?” “Who is the SS officer in the photograph?”’ said Jana, quoting from the article.
‘Not bad. A little selective and out of context perhaps, but still, impressive’, Jack replied. ‘It’s just an interesting story to be read on a Sunday morning on the terrace with your latté and croissants, that’s all. In a week or so it’ll be forgotten. It’s always the way.’
‘Really? Then why are you working on a follow-up article?’
‘We are well informed.’
‘Your editor talked …’
‘I should have known. The old fart could never resist a pretty face and a short skirt.’
‘Spoken like the true blue chauvinist you are. Honestly, you haven’t changed at all, Jack. In actual fact, my tools of trade are a little more sophisticated than that.’
‘You’re the one leaning on me’, Jack replied, pointing to the door.
‘All right, all right. Truce, please?’ said Jana, holding up her hands.
‘It’s your call.’
‘You seem convinced that there’s a connection between the officer in the photo and the owner of the cottage’, said Jana, coming straight to the point. ‘What makes you so sure?’
‘Instinct alone isn’t enough; you need proof.’
‘I’m aware of that, but in my line of work instinct is important.’
‘Let me think … what was it last time? Accusing the Archbishop of paedophilia without sufficient evidence? I stopped you just in time, remember?’
Jack frowned, annoyed. ‘Thanks for reminding me; I was just wondering when you’d get around to that.’ Taking chances—often big ones—was part of Jack’s make-up. If it wasn’t risky, it wasn’t fun. If it wasn’t fun, he lost interest. Jack was used to being in trouble.
Jana put her hand on his arm and smiled at him. ‘It’s okay. By the way, I think your instincts are right, this time.’
‘And what makes you so sure?’ Jack asked.
‘Instinct’, she replied, and they both burst out laughing. ‘Okay, we both agree instinct is important,’ Jana continued, ‘but we do need more. So what have you found out so far?’
‘Why should I tell you?’ asked Jack. ‘If I remember correctly, last time I took you into my confidence, I almost got my balls cut off.’
‘Oh yeah? I’d have thought a few little bruises to that tiny little ego of yours was preferable to a couple of years in the clink. Get over it, Jack!’
‘Shit, here we go again …’ said Jack, shaking his head.
‘You don’t have to, but I think you will’, said Jana, changing tack.
‘Am I that predictable?’
Jana shrugged. ‘No. I think you will because of what I’m about to propose.’
‘You certainly don’t waste time do you?’ countered Jack.
‘I suggest we share information’, said Jana. ‘If I come up with something worthwhile, you get more material for your article.’
‘And you; what’s in it for you?’ asked Jack.
‘I move a little closer to … let’s call it my “subject”, so we both get what we want’, said Jana.
‘What exactly are you investigating? The fiery death of a young volunteer? Come on …’ said Jack.
‘That’s a matter for the coroner.’
‘My point exactly. What then?’ asked Jack.
‘My brief is wider than that’, said Jana.
‘What are these Special Projects you’re in charge of, anyway?’
‘I investigate … sensitive matters … usually involving politicians, judges, high-profile individuals, even police officers.’
‘Or possible war criminals?’
‘Yes’, Jana conceded.
‘What, like Special Branch or Internal Affairs?’
‘Something like that.’
‘Sounds a bit cloak and dagger to me’, said Jack, raising an eyebrow.
‘Of course there would have to be certain conditions about how you use the information I give you—understand?’
‘Bossy as usual’, mumbled Jack.
‘What did you say?’
‘Nothing. I think you forgot something rather important.’
‘Trust. It won’t work without trust …’
‘You’re right,’ she agreed, ‘and trust has to be earned.’
‘About earning trust …’ said Jana, reaching for her briefcase and taking out a silver ring, which she passed to Jack. ‘We found this near the fireplace in the cottage. I’m surprised you missed it. You’d been through everything else before the police arrived, right? What do you make of it?’
Jack took the ring and walked towards the window. Just as he reached it, the window exploded, splinters of glass whistling through the air like jagged missiles, one of them imbedding itself in Jack’s cheek, barely missing his eye. A house brick landed on the floor in front of him.
‘What on earth was that?’ cried Jana, jumping up and running towards Jack. Glancing out of the broken window, she caught a glimpse of a boy pedalling away on a pushbike. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked.
‘Yeah, I’m okay’, said Jack, pulling the splinter out of his cheek and trying to stem the flow of blood with a handkerchief.
‘Let me have a look.’
‘It’s nothing, just a scratch.’
‘Jesus, Jack. You could have lost an eye. Still treading on the wrong toes?’
He shook his head. ‘Just street kids, leave it alone. I had a problem here the other night …’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Someone vandalised my car. You know, scratches, smashed brake lights, slashed tyres, stuff like that. I asked around …’
‘Nothing; forget it.’
‘Let me get this straight: someone throws a brick through your window in the middle of the day, barely missing your head, and you just want to forget it?’
‘As you wish’, said Jana, shaking her head.
Jack bent down, picked up the ring, and held it up to the light as if nothing had happened. ‘Well, well,’ he said after studying it for a while, ‘how extraordinary. This is a Totenkopf ring, the honour ring of the SS. Usually awarded personally by Himmler for special services for Reich and Fuehrer. It was extremely rare and highly prized.’ Jack proffered the ring to Jana. ‘It’s made of silver. Look, you can see the skull and crossbones and there are some runic symbols engraved on the band. It was manufactured by a firm in Munich—Otto Gars.’
‘I’m impressed’, said Jana. ‘You’ve certainly done your homework on the SS.’
‘Sure have. My first assignment as a rookie journalist was tracking down an SS thug living in Queensland. You never forget your first assignment, especially one that went spectacularly wrong’, replied Jack, laughing. ‘Have you checked the inside of the band? The inscriptions?’
‘The band should be engraved with the letters “S.lb”, which stands for Seinen Lieben, the date of presentation, a facsimile of Himmler’s signature, and most importantly—’
‘The recipient’s name’, interrupted Jana.
‘See for yourself.’
‘Bummer! The name’s been chiselled out.’
‘I’m afraid so.’
‘That would have been too easy, I suppose. In any case, this ring shouldn’t be here.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, it should either be on the left ring finger of the recipient, if he’s still alive that is, or …’
‘In the event of death, the ring should have been removed for preservation at Himmler’s castle at Wewelsburg in memory of the ring holder.’
‘You know, the rings of SS officers fallen in battle were kept at a special shrine at the castle. In 1944, Himmler ordered the rings to be sealed inside a mountain near Wewelsburg to prevent their capture by the advancing Allies. The rings have never been found.’
‘What a story.’
‘I think it’s my turn now’, said Jack, handing back the ring. ‘Let’s go upstairs to my study. I want to show you something.’
‘How exciting, not etchings I hope, Jana joked, following Jack up the narrow stairs leading to the attic.
‘No. I only show my etchings to young chicks.’
The study was tidy and well designed, with lots of light flooding in through a large dormer window facing the courtyard. ‘Welcome to the engine room,’ said Jack, pointing to a long workbench crammed with computer screens, laser printers, a fax machine and an array of photographic equipment. Several large photographs were pinned to a whiteboard next to the window.
‘How come your study’s so tidy and the rest of the place is such a mess?’ said Jana, looking around.
‘Priorities. It still amazes me what you can do with computers these days’, said Jack, ignoring her. ‘Let me show you what I’ve found out so far’, he added, reaching for a laser torch and pointing it at one of the photographs on the whiteboard.
‘As you can see, this is an enlargement of the photo from the cottage. I took a close-up of it with my digital camera and enhanced it. Let’s begin with the man in the uniform. Tell me what you see’, Jack suggested.
‘I see a German officer wearing the uniform of the SS. Highly decorated, with a Ritterkreuz—a Knight’s Cross—right here.’ Jana pointed to the throat of the officer in the picture.
‘Young. Early thirties, I’d say.’
‘Go on, how tall?’
‘Quite tall, but I’d have to guess of course …’
‘I can tell you he’s at least five foot eleven inches’, Jack explained.
‘How can you be so precise?’
‘Do you see this armband?’ he asked, holding up another enlargement showing only the upper body of the officer. ‘This is the Adolf Hitler armband on his cuff. It was worn only by members of the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler—Hitler’s bodyguard, the pride of the Waffen SS, the cream of the Aryan super race. They had to be at least five foot eleven to be eligible to join. Tall lads, as you would expect. Goosestepping shorties just wouldn’t have been quite the same—right?’
‘This is interesting. Come, look at the hand holding the gun.’
‘He’s wearing a ring. This one you think?’ Jana asked, holding up the Totenkopf ring.
‘Looks like it. I didn’t notice it before. This ties in with the other contents of the box. I took photos of everything.’ Jack pointed to a group of smaller pictures on the board in front of them. ‘The most impressive item is the medal—the Ritterkreuz. See? The officer in the photo is wearing one just like it—here.’ Jana nodded. ‘It was awarded for acts of great courage’, said Jack. ‘Now, what about the unfortunate boy. What do you see?’
‘I see a naked youth—about fifteen I’d say—hanging upside down from a tree branch with the rope or wire wound around his testicles. It’s the only thing holding him up. It’s horrific. Also, his hands are tied behind his back and his head is shaved. He’s frightfully thin. Look at his ribs’, she said, and shuddered. ‘You can count them!’
‘Well, there’s a gun pointed at his head, and a nasty-looking Doberman’, said Jana, tracing the outline of the large dog crouching on the ground next to the boy.
‘What about the geography?’
‘Alpine, I’d say. Stunning. Those mountains are massive and that’s heavy snow cover on top and pine forests down to the edge of a lake … Austrian or Swiss perhaps? Rather large, judging by the size of the boat over here.’
‘Not bad’, said Jack, clapping his hands in mock applause. ‘It’s a Swiss lake actually.’
‘Oh? How do you know that?’
‘The boat. Here, look. I’ve prepared several enlargements. Unfortunately, I couldn’t disperse the fog to get a better image. Computers are good, but not that good—yet. That’s a powerful motor cruiser tied up at the jetty; fast, sleek, expensive. The sort of thing you’d expect to find moored in front of one of those exclusive hotels on a Swiss lake. And here’s the proof’, he said, pointing to the stern of the boat.
‘A flag. But I can’t make out any pattern or design, it’s too blurred.’
‘Try this.’ Jack handed her another enlargement.
‘It’s a cross; the Swiss flag!’ Jana exclaimed, getting excited. ‘This is really quite something. I’ve told you before, you’re in the wrong business. You should be a sleuth.’
‘There’s more’, said Jack. ‘The officer has something tucked under his arm. See?’ he said, pointing. ‘It’s an unusual shape. That’s what intrigued me.’
‘It’s too small and most of it is hidden. I can’t see what it is.’
‘Then try this, Inspector, it’s one of my more sophisticated tools of trade’, said Jack, handing her a magnifying glass.
‘Amazing. It looks like a violin case.’
‘Precisely. Not exactly what you’d expect to find, is it? A gun in one hand and a violin case in the other. Quite a guy.’
‘You said it. Surely, there can’t be any more, I’m exhausted.’
‘Just one more item, and a fascinating one at that’, Jack promised. ‘Here, look at the dog. Look at his collar. It’s wide and shiny, possibly made of some type of metal, and there are pointed studs and a leather band underneath.’
‘You’re right, it must be metal’, Jana agreed, looking through the magnifying glass.
Jack was tempted to stroke her hair, but pulled back his hand. Standing so close to Jana, seeing the gentle curve of her neck, the tiny shell of her ear, smelling her familiar scent—musky and exciting—brought back memories of lazy Sunday mornings wickedly spent in bed a long time ago. But that was in another life, he reminded himself.
‘How unusual’, said Jana. ‘It’s engraved on the top here. You can just see the letters R–E–I. I wonder what it means.’
‘It could be initials, or the end of an inscription. A name perhaps, with the rest of the writing continuing on the other side of the dog’s neck’, Jack suggested.
Jana walked to the window and looked down into the overgrown courtyard below. ‘Jack, have you been able to find out who owns the cottage, or rather what’s left of it?’ she asked.
‘That wasn’t hard; my title search is right here. The property is registered in the name of Wotan Holdings Pty Limited. The shareholders and directors are Eric and Heinrich Newman.’
‘Apparently, father and son. Sir Eric has agreed to see me; I have an appointment with him tomorrow at his home,’ said Jana.
‘It’s Sir Eric, is it?’ It was Jack’s turn to look impressed. ‘I don’t suppose I could come along?’ he asked hopefully.
‘That wouldn’t be such a good idea. It’ll be a formal police visit.’ Jack’s face sank. ‘Come on, Jack, don’t look so disappointed.’
‘Easy for you. Just flash a badge and walk straight in.’
‘I’ll tell you all about it after. We have a deal, remember?’
‘We do?’ Jack said. ‘I didn’t know we’d agreed.’
‘Let me put it this way, if we have, you can come with me to visit Miss Abramowitz if you like. I’m going to see her now.’
‘And who might that be?’
‘She’s the lady who wrote to your editor claiming to have recognised the officer in the photograph’, Jana replied casually. ‘The paper notified the police straight away. That’s really why I came to see you’, she explained.
Jack looked thunderstruck. ‘The bastard didn’t tell me. You’re joking, surely?’
Jana opened her handbag and gave Jack a copy of the Abramowitz letter. He read it and hurried to the door. ‘Bloody hell, what are you waiting for?’ he reprimanded her, looking for his car keys.
‘What about the window?’
‘I’ll fix it later. Let’s go.’
Did you enjoy this sample?
The Empress Holds the Key is now available on my website at this link
Encouraged by the reception of The Empress Holds the Key, I released my next thriller–The Disappearance of Anna Popov—in 2014.
When Jack Rogan, celebrated author and journalist, stumbles on a mysterious clue pointing to the tragic disappearance of two girls from Alice Springs, he can’t resist investigating.
Rogan is joined by three friends: Rebecca Armstrong, his New York literary agent; Andrew Simpson, a retired Aboriginal police officer; and Cassandra, an enigmatic psychic, as he follows the trail of the missing girls into the remote Dreamtime wilderness of outback Australia.
Soon past the point of no return, they enter a dark web of superstition and are drawn into the upside-down-world of an outlaw bikie gang where the ruler is an evil master, outcasts are heroes, and cruelty and violence is admired and rewarded.
Cassandra, though, has a secret agenda of her own. Using her occult powers to avenge an old, deep wrong, she sets the scene for an epic showdown where the stakes are high and the loser faces death and oblivion.
Will Rogan succeed? Will a desperate mother’s prayers be answered? Will a lost daughter be found? Or will the forces of evil crush all their hopes and dreams?
Leura, Blue Mountains, Australia
A dark, page-turning psychological thriller
Jack Rogan Mysteries Book 3
I first came across the story of Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance in the remote Kimberley in Western Australia. Leaning against a 700-year-old boab tree with my Aboriginal guide—a Bunuba elder—I was looking up at the tall cliffs guarding the entrance to Windjana Gorge; his country. We had just visited some stunning Aboriginal rock art—haunting paintings thought to be more than twenty thousand years old. Rising like a fortress out of the glare, the tall cliffs—remnants of an ancient Devonian reef—formed a forbidding barrier between his world and mine.
‘This is where it all happened’, the old man said, pointing into the deep gorge cut through the rock by the Lennard River. ‘And it wasn’t that long ago. Jandamarra’s cave is just up there.’
Jandamarra was an Aboriginal freedom fighter in the 1890s who refused to surrender his country and his freedom to the white settlers pushing relentlessly north.
As the shadows lengthened, I listened to the remarkable story of first contact between the Bunuba and the early Australian pastoralists. It was a stirring tale of heroism and despair, unspeakable brutality and acts of great courage. It was the final chapter in the long history of a proud people. With the story ending in tragedy, the painful words turned into a whisper of defeat, falling from the lips of one of its last true elders. Caught between two worlds, Jandamarra had tried to find a way of embracing the new, but the old was in his blood and could not be denied.
This conflict is by no means over. It exists today. Colliding cultures send ripples of discord far into the future and affect generations. It is as relevant today as it was in Jandamarra’s time. The stage is the same, so is the plot. Only the actors are different.
As the embers of our campfire turned slowly to ash, I began to wonder … What if Jandamarra had lived today? What if …?
Leura, Blue Mountains, Australia
Alice Springs: January 2005
Anna had been dancing in The Shed the night she disappeared. The Shed was a notorious watering hole frequented mainly by thirsty truckies. It called itself a bush pub, but that was an exaggeration. It was more like a long wooden bar with a corrugated iron roof held up by gnarled fence posts and barbed wire. There were no walls. The floor, hard as rock, was red desert earth compacted by thousands of feet shuffling their owners to the bar for a drink. Because the beer was always cold and the steaks were huge and cheap, the place was always packed. More recently, however, there was one more added attraction: backpackers, mainly girls, touring the outback. Looking for cheap grog and adventure, the young nomads had made The Shed their own. Located three kilometres out of Alice, it was within easy walking distance of the youth hostels and budget motels popular with tourists.
A local bush band was playing country and western music and the mouth-watering aroma of frying onions and sizzling sausages drifted across from the barbecue. It was very hot and very late.
‘Beer, mate?’ asked the barmaid, sizing up the tall, dark stranger.
The handsome Aboriginal took off his broad-rimmed drover’s hat, wiped his forehead with a red handkerchief and nodded. ‘One for your friend as well?’ she asked, pointing to the huge snake wound around his neck and shoulders.
‘No thanks; she’s driving’, he said, affectionately stroking the exquisite python.
Standing at the other end of the bar, a group of truckies were eyeing off the girls on the improvised dance floor. ‘Look, the sheilas have to dance with each other ’cause there’re no blokes here having a go’, said one, downing another beer.
‘I bet you can’t get them to dance with you, mate; not even one’, said another, patting his friend on the hairy beer gut bulging over his shorts. ‘Just look at you, you slob.’
‘Oh yeah? You’re all talk. What’s it worth?’
The others laughed.
The man slammed down his glass, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and belched loudly. Pulling down his singlet to cover part of his protruding gut, he slipped his thongs back on and shuffled unsteadily towards the dance floor.
Barefoot and wearing the briefest of shorts and a tight-fitting pink T-shirt accentuating her firm breasts, Anna, her silky blonde hair swishing against the tips of her tanned shoulder blades, was dancing with her friend Julia. Anna was looking for freedom; Julia for the adventures that the novelty of travel to remote places invariably offered. The Shed had it all: excitement, danger, and the lure of the unknown far away from the watchful eyes of fretting parents and curious friends. Enjoying her favourite Dixie Chicks song, Anna swayed from side to side with her eyes closed, letting the familiar beat of the music carry her away. When it stopped and she opened her eyes, she almost bumped into the grotesque fat man towering over her.
‘How about a dance, luv?’ said the fat man, his bald head glistening with sweat.
‘No thanks’, she snapped, turning away. ‘He’s gross’, she whispered to Julia. ‘Let’s take a break.’
As his mates at the bar roared laughing, a flash of anger raced across the face of the fat truckie. ‘Come on, sweetie, just one. Be a good sport’, he persisted, putting a heavy, sweaty hand on Anna’s shoulder.
‘Get off me!’ shouted Anna, pushing the fleshy hand away in disgust.
His mates at the bar began to whistle and hoot. Instead of walking away, the fat man grabbed Anna from behind, spun her around and lifted her up like a rag doll. Pressing her against his huge chest, he lumbered awkwardly around the dance floor like a dancing bear performing his tricks at the fair.
With the man’s hot beer breath in her face, Anna began to retch.
The man with the snake sipped his beer and watched the odd couple stagger across the dance floor. Slowly, he unwound the python, lifted it over his head and gently put it down on the bar.
‘Look after her for me, luv’, he said to the barmaid. ‘She’s harmless. I’ll be right back.’ He walked slowly over to the dance floor. ‘That’s enough, mate. Put her down’, he said, patting the fat man on the back.
The truckie turned his head and glared, his bloodshot eyes slightly unfocused. ‘Fuck off, darkie. This is none of your business’, he hissed angrily.
The snake man’s right hand shot up in silent reply and grabbed the fat man’s ear. ‘I don’t think you heard me’, he said, twisting the ear. ‘Let her go.’
The fat man let go of Anna, clenched his fists and spun around.
The tall man let go of the ear and stepped back.
The fat man charged—120 kilos of rage.
Like most professional fighters, the tall man had the waist of a ballerina and the shoulders of a weightlifter. Rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet, he stood poised like a cat watching its prey. He sidestepped the charge easily, letting the fat man crash into the bar.
‘Fight, you fucking coward!’ bellowed the fat man, picking himself up.
The tall man exploded into action. The first punch, delivered by his left fist, landed on his opponent’s beer gut and went deep. The second, delivered by his right, caught the fat man on the left cheek and broke a bone. The fight was over in an instant. Two more massive blows, one to the chin and one to the nose, finished the truckie off.
‘Anyone else?’ the tall man asked, squaring his shoulders. No one stepped forward. ‘He had it coming. It’s over. Get back to your beers.’
The tall man walked to the far end of the bar, uncoiled the snake, which had wound itself around a post, and slung it over his shoulders.
‘Thanks for looking after her, luv’, he said to the barmaid. ‘One more for the road, please …’ Gulping down his final beer, he reached for his hat, threw a few coins on the bar and walked out into the darkness.
Julia put her arm around her friend. ‘Are you all right?’ she asked, a worried look on her face. Anna nodded. ‘Come on, let’s get out of here before they all have a go at each other and we’re caught in the middle.’ The two girls left the dance floor and hurried outside.
‘Shouldn’t we wait for the others?’ asked Anna. ‘One of the guys from the hostel had a car.’
‘No. They’re out the back, eating. We can walk. It isn’t far.’
The road leading into Alice was deserted. The girls took off their shoes and walked along the warm asphalt.
‘Did you see that guy with the snake?’ said Julia. ‘What a hunk! And I couldn’t even thank him. Pity.’
The powerful V8 of the ute purred into life after the girls had walked past. Inching slowly forward without lights, it left the car park behind The Shed and headed slowly for town. Startled by the engine noise coming towards them out of the dark, the girls turned around. The headlights came on suddenly, momentarily blinding them.
‘Get off the road!’ shouted Anna, pushing her friend into the bushes.
The ute accelerated and screeched to a halt next to them. ‘Walking along the road after midnight isn’t such a great idea. Especially ’round here’, said a voice through the open driver’s window.
‘Look who it is’, whispered Julia excitedly.
‘Hop in. I’ll give youse a lift back to town.’
‘Come on’, said Julia, pulling Anna out of the bushes.
‘Julia, don’t!’ cried Anna. ‘No hitchhiking, remember?’
‘It’s all right … he’s your hero.’ Julia walked over to the car and opened the passenger door. ‘You scared us’, she said, climbing in.
The snake man smiled at her, revving the engine. Reluctantly, Anna climbed in after her friend and closed the door.
Sydney Harbour: New Year’s Eve 2009
The old year was dying. ‘Five, four, three, two, one …’ counted the cheering crowd as the final seconds of 2009 tumbled through the hourglass. Suddenly, the massive steel arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge erupted, forming a dazzling tiara of sparks. As it raced along the girders from both sides towards the centre like fire-breathing dragons, the spectacular fireworks lit up the night sky. Meeting in the middle between the main deck and the top of the arch, light and colour engaged in a breathtaking duel, heralding a turbulent year to come.
‘Happy New Year, Jack!’ shouted the stunning young woman standing next to Jack Rogan on the crowded yacht. Rebecca Armstrong reached up, threw her slender arms around his neck and kissed him passionately on the mouth. It was the first time she had kissed her famous client.
‘Wow! I thought a kiss like this was strictly the province of the writer’s imagination’, said Jack, coming up for air. ‘Happy New Year, Becky!’
Rebecca flicked her glossy dark hair from her flushed face—as women who know they have beautiful hair often do—and took him by the hand. ‘Don’t get used to it. Tonight’s an exception. Come on. I have a surprise for you’, she said.
‘I like surprises.’
Heads turned as Rebecca pushed through the crowd with Jack by her side. Radiating sophistication and style in her New York designer clothes, she made straight for the stern of the yacht.
As the captain navigated the pitching vessel through the tightly packed spectator fleet under the Harbour Bridge, the yacht almost collided with an ostentatious motor cruiser. Sounding like a warning, the deep, throaty foghorn of a large ocean liner tied up at Circular Quay added to the crazy cacophony welcoming the new year. An acrid, phosphorous, eye-watering gunpowder smell of spent fireworks cartridges filled the balmy air as a smoke haze drifted past the Opera House.
‘Who are all these people?’ asked Jack, waving a hand at the crowd on the deck.
‘The Sydney literary set. Don’t you recognise anyone?’ asked Rebecca, frowning.
‘I’m new to all this, remember?’
‘They all seem to know you …’
‘Am I paying for it?’ Jack asked anxiously.
‘No, Jack. Your publisher is. Relax. Look who’s over there.’ She pointed to a tall, sandy-haired man in a crumpled, checked shirt leaning casually against the mast with a bottle of beer in his hand.
‘China!’ yelled Jack, walking over to his friend. ‘What are you doing here?’
‘Spinner! Your girlfriend invited me. Cheers!’ They touched glasses. ‘And a few of your other neglected mates as well.’ The sandy-haired man pointed to the bow of the crowded vessel.
‘She isn’t my—’ said Jack, lowering his voice.
‘China?’ asked Rebecca. ‘He told me his name was Will.’
‘It is’, replied Jack, laughing. ‘China’s his nickname.’
‘[_China? _]How come?’
‘My little mate, rhymes with china plate; china. Simple—see?’
‘You Aussies are something else’, said Rebecca, shaking her head. ‘I can see I’ve a lot to learn.’
‘Thanks, Becky,’ said Jack, giving her a hug, ‘very thoughtful of you.’ Her firm, toned body sent a ripple of excitement racing up his spine.
During his whirlwind book-signing tour across the US, Jack had repeatedly complained that he missed Sydney and his Aussie friends. The surprise New Year’s Eve party on Sydney Harbour was his publisher’s response.
‘You’ve got to watch Will; he’s quite a lad’, warned Jack, a sparkle in his eyes.
‘Don’t listen to Spinner’, said Will.
‘Spinner? Not another nickname!’ said Rebecca.
‘Sure is’, replied Will. ‘He’s always spinning yarns—right?’
The two men could have been mistaken for brothers, not only because of their rugged good looks, but also because of their good-natured banter suggesting a deep friendship forged by years spent together. Both were clearly outdoor types. Will’s tanned face—lined by laughter and a little too much sun—hinted at laid-back good humour, whilst Jack’s piercing green eyes and athletic physique were a magnet for women of all ages.
‘You’re a lucky bastard, mate’, said Will.
‘She’s not bad’, said Will pointing with his glass to Rebecca. ‘Girlfriend?’
‘Sure … Don’t tell me you haven’t …?’
‘No, seriously. My publishers told me I needed help with PR, book signings, publicity—stuff like that. You know what I’m like. So, they appointed her to look after all that crap for me. You should see her office in New York. She’s very good’, said Jack. ‘Strictly business.’
Will wasn’t convinced. ‘I’ve heard that one before’, he said. ‘You and women … Lucky bastard.’
‘Perhaps I am.’
‘Perhaps? Jet-setting author with yachts and champagne and classy chicks like this one to look after you? You’ve come a long way, Spinner.’
‘It all happened very fast.’
‘I can see that, but you hardly have time for your old drinking buddies anymore’, lamented Will.
‘I haven’t got time to scratch myself.’
‘Just look around, mate. This crowd isn’t you.’
As a freelance journalist, Jack Rogan depended on his eclectic network of contacts and friends for leads and inspiration. It was Will who had given Jack the lead to a great story two years before—the trial of a Nazi war criminal that exposed a secret hoard of Nazi gold in the vaults of Swiss banks.
When Jack published Dental Gold and Other Horrors, it was an international success. The Swiss, embarrassed by the outcries about ‘abandoned’ bank accounts of thousands of Holocaust victims, finally agreed to open their ledgers. This was seen by many as the first serious step towards compensation. Overnight, Jack had become a celebrated Time magazine front page hero, and his book a sensation.
‘Come on, Will, it’s not that bad’, retorted Jack, handing his friend a glass of champagne. ‘Here, drink up!’
The famous Sydney New Year’s Eve fireworks were reaching their climax with a multi-coloured waterfall of sparks cascading from the deck of the bridge into the ink-blue waters of the harbour below.
‘So—what next, mate?’ asked Will, draining his glass.
‘I’m taking a couple weeks off. First break in two years.’
‘Then why don’t you come with me?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m taking some time off too. Going bush; out west …’
‘Fossicking for bric-a-brac and old furniture?’
‘Exactly. And I still have the old van.’
‘I don’t believe it! Just like the good old days, eh?’
‘Some things never change, mate. Do you reckon they might have some more beer around here? I’m sick of this foreign crap’, said Will.
Jack pointed an accusing finger at his friend. ‘This is Bollinger, you peasant’, he said. ‘The best.’
‘I don’t give a stuff. It’s crap.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. When are you leaving?’
‘As soon as I sober up.’
‘I tell you what. You clear it with Becky, and I’m in.’
‘Well, well! I never thought I’d see the day. Jack Rogan actually in awe of a woman. Asking for permission?’ said Will, shaking his head.
‘You don’t know these Yankee broads, mate. Tough as old boot leather. And besides,’ continued Jack lowering his voice, ‘they hold the purse strings.’
‘You go and find me a beer, Spinner, and leave her to me.’
‘Good luck.’ Poor bastard, thought Jack, she’ll eat him alive!
Somewhere in the bush near Bathurst: 1 January 2010
The old van lurched alarmingly to one side—tortured gears crunching loudly—and began the steep descent down into the valley. Jack woke with a start. Rubbing his aching shoulder—a constant reminder of the sniper’s bullet that ended his stint as a war correspondent in Afghanistan—he turned to Will.
‘Where are we?’ he asked, reaching for his sunglasses.
‘Goldmining country. We just passed Bathurst. Good sleep? A little too much Bollinger, perhaps?’ suggested Will good-naturedly. ‘You should have stuck to the beer, mate.’
‘What did you tell her?’ Jack asked. Leaving the party at dawn with Will to go home and pack was still a blur.
‘I suggested she let you go for a month, and after a bit of argy-bargy, we settled for a week. Done and dusted. She’s taking a few days off as well. Barrier Reef. That helped. But you’re right, she’s one tough cookie. She even challenged me to a drinking contest—vodka shots—before she agreed. We must have downed a dozen, I reckon.’
‘You’re here, aren’t you? The things I do for a chum.’
‘Where are we staying?’
‘Camping, Jack. Just like we used to. I know a good spot up in the hills by the creek. This area used to be Dad’s favourite, remember? The gear’s in the back,’ Will said, ‘including the old tent.’
‘It leaked like a sieve’, said Jack. He was beginning to have second thoughts. Maybe New Year’s Eve nostalgia and a little too much champagne had got the better of him.
As young men, he and Will had been inseparable. Will’s family had taken in the fresh-faced Queensland country boy as one of their own.
The two lads had accompanied Will’s father on many a buying trip, going from farm to farm in remote rural areas and offering to buy old stuff nobody needed. Buy cheaply, take the goods back to Sydney, do them up a bit in the workshop behind the house, and then sell them for a handsome profit in the shop at the front.
‘Presentation is everything’, Will’s dad used to say. ‘Remember, boys, the wrapping can be more important than the present.’ He had made a good living out of this for over fifty years. After he passed away, Will continued the tradition once a year or so, for old times’ sake. Jack had many fond memories of those trips: delicious roast dinners with a farmer and his family in the cosy kitchen; sitting on the veranda of a remote homestead with a cold beer at the end of a long hot day; and many a romp in the hay with a farmer’s daughter. Even, sometimes, his wife. Or both.
Most of the furniture in Jack’s house came from these excursions. It was surprising what curios had found their way to Australia and were waiting in disused sheds or in the back of barns to be discovered by someone with imagination and an eye for value. Jack and Will used to joke about it often. The father’s buying trips had turned into a nostalgic treasure hunt for the son and his friend.
After putting up the old tent by the creek, Will made a fire and cooked some sausages. ‘What’s she really like?’ he asked, stoking the fire.
‘To tell you the truth, I don’t know her that well.’
‘We’ve been flat out these last couple of months travelling together, on and off. All business.’
‘She’s a good looker, that’s for sure. Very sexy; great body. She must be pushing 40, surely?’
‘She’s a bit of a health buff.’
‘What? All carrot juice and push-ups?’
‘No. Yoga and karate. She’d deck us both in three seconds flat. I’ve seen her do it. Very fit.’
‘Bodyguard as well. Impressive.’
‘She’s also very smart, sophisticated and incredibly well connected. She knows all the right people.’
‘Not as far as I know. Career type; too busy.’
‘Come on, mate, it’s me you’re talking to. She’d be great in the sack.’
‘I don’t look at her that way. She’s a professional. She takes care of my business interests. The royalties; the financial side of things.’
‘Don’t give me that crap.’
‘No, I’m serious. Never put your dick in the cash register, as my first editor used to say.’
‘You must have at least thought about it.’
‘Hmm … There’s something about her. I can’t put my finger on it, but—’
‘She sure likes you.’ interrupted Will.
‘You can tell, can you?’
‘She and I are drinking buddies—remember?’
‘Well, that explains it …’
‘We’ll see. Here; done.’ Will took the pan off the fire and put the sausages on a plate. Accidentally touching the hot pan, he burned his fingers and almost dropped it. ‘Shit! Throw us another tinnie, mate, and let’s get stuck into it.’
They were both asleep just after sundown.
‘There’s enough grog in here to get an entire football team pissed several times over, but no food at all’, complained Jack next morning, searching in vain for some eggs and bacon for breakfast.
‘I’m the alcohol technician, you’re the cook, remember?’ replied Will, tinkering with his fishing gear. ‘I fixed dinner last night, mate. Breakfast is your job.’
‘Sausages. Big deal.’
‘If you don’t like the tucker, get some fresh stuff. The village is just down the road.’
The only thing open in the tiny hamlet was the corner store, which also served as the post office and petrol station. The man behind the counter turned out to be the local real estate agent minding the store for a mate who’d gone to visit family. Inquisitive by nature, the agent was intrigued by the old van with ‘Arthur Hamilton & Son—second-hand furniture bought and sold’ prominently painted on its sides. The business logo—a laughing kookaburra perched on the arm of a rocking chair—reminded him of a biscuit tin popular in the 1950s. After half an hour of small talk, Jack had managed to buy some meagre provisions. He had also managed to arrange their first assignment.
By the time he manoeuvred the van back into camp, it was already lunchtime and very hot. Holding a fishing rod with one hand, Will was dozing under a tree by the creek.
‘Enjoying your holiday, mate?’ asked Jack, unpacking the groceries. ‘Here, look at this.’ He handed Will a crumpled piece of paper.
‘Our first assignment. You didn’t think I drove this contraption all the way into the village just to buy some eggs?’
‘And you didn’t think I invited you along just because you’re a famous author, eh?’ retorted Will. ‘Be a good sport and throw us a tinnie.’
They waited until late afternoon had taken the sting out of the sun before setting out to find the farm. Following a rutted track for several kilometres, they turned a sharp corner and stopped in front of a wooden gate which had all but rotted off its hinges.
‘What a dump’, said Jack, pushing the gate open with his shoulder. ‘The agent did warn me the place is about to be demolished. No one’s lived here in years. A stockbroker from Sydney just bought it and wants to get rid of all the furniture and stuff. The agent said we should grab what we want and meet him in the village tomorrow to make an offer. This could be our lucky day.’
Will looked around the ramshackle yard. ‘I doubt it’, he said, and shook his head.
The abandoned homestead had definitely seen better days. Part of the wooden structure had been destroyed by fire and was open to the elements. The front door was missing and the corrugated iron roof of the veranda had collapsed. Most of the windows were broken. Coming closer, Jack noticed something shiny and tightly coiled like a sailor’s rope on the deck of a yacht, glistening in the sunlight. Shit! A red bellied black, thought Jack, watching the deadly snake sunning itself on the warped floorboards of the porch; an ominous sentinel, guarding the entrance to a forbidden place.
‘You got a bum steer, mate. The place is empty. We’re wasting our time’, said Will. He turned around and began to walk back to the van. ‘Let’s go.’
‘The agent said all the stuff’s in a barn behind the house—see?’ Jack kept an eye on the snake, and picked his way carefully through the tall grass. ‘Here, give me a hand.’ Together they pushed open the old wooden door and peered inside.
The small barn was filled with all kinds of furniture, kitchen utensils, farming implements and carpentry tools. Broken crockery, pages torn from books and magazines, crumpled old newspapers and an assortment of cutlery and pottery shards littered the floor. Everything was covered in dust.
‘Well, well, what have we here then, eh?’ asked Jack, squinting into the gloom.
Will picked up a candle from the floor and lit it. ‘Look at this’, he said.
‘A harmonium.’ Will pulled over a rickety stool, sat down in front of the keyboard and began to operate the bellows with the broken foot pedals. He handed the candle to Jack and started to play. At first, the air in the protesting bellows responded with a tortured, wheezing sound, but it soon turned into a melody, faint and church organ-like. The hymn sounded eerie and out of place in the barn filled with abandoned possessions of generations past.
‘I didn’t know you could play.’
‘Sunday school. You never forget.’
They pushed the harmonium aside and began to explore the barn.
Their curiosity aroused, they opened tea chests, emptied drawers and peered into hatboxes and armoires crammed with vintage clothing. They pored over photo albums filled with sepia portraits of dapper gentlemen wearing their Sunday best, and Victorian matrons staring blankly into space. Pulling funny faces, they tried on waistcoats, bonnets and bowler hats, and took turns parading in front of the cracked dressing table mirror.
Outside, the afternoon had turned to night, the shrill, monotonous hum of cicadas the only intrusion on the stillness. Exhausted, they lay down on an old double bed next to the window.
‘It’s a strange feeling, isn’t it?’ said Will.
‘Being surrounded by all this stuff that once belonged to real people. Now long gone.’
‘It is a bit’, said Jack.
‘It makes you feel … vulnerable.’
‘In what way?’
‘Here we are, both in our prime, yet …’
‘What are you getting at?’
‘The Ferryman is never that far away.’
‘That’s a bit morbid’, said Jack.
‘It’s true, though. We don’t know how much time we’ve got.’
‘No, we don’t. And yes, one day we’ll have to pay the Ferryman. But …’
‘What?’ asked Will.
‘Not yet. Go to sleep.’
Unable to fall asleep, Will looked through the broken window panes at the stars blazing above and listened to the regular breathing of his friend lying fast asleep next to him. Feeling suddenly quite cold, he got up and began to search for something to cover himself with. This’ll do, he thought, reaching for the old moth-eaten army overcoat he had tried on before. I wonder what horrors this has seen.
When Will pulled the coat up to his chin to keep warm, a dank smell assaulted his nose, conjuring up images of trench warfare, whistling shells, mateship and blood. Smells of death, he thought, pushing the coat aside. Would Jack lay down his life to save a mate, Will asked himself,[_ like many of the diggers have done? I think he would_]. Will closed his eyes. Could I do the same? I guess only the real thing can answer that, he thought, and drifted to sleep.
By the time they woke up and began to load up the van, the first rays of morning sun had kissed the tiny beads of dew glistening like tears on the broken window panes.
Rose Cottage, Sydney: 9 January 2010
Rebecca Armstrong got out of the taxi and looked at the small sandstone cottage. It wasn’t what she had expected. I should have worn my jeans and a tank top, she thought, looking at her tight-fitting designer slacks, high-heel shoes and crisp Chanel blouse. She adjusted her hair and, clutching her tiny, two-thousand dollar handbag, walked to the front door and rang the bell.
‘So, this is where the world-famous Aussie author lives’, she said, following Jack into the cottage. ‘Interesting … Homes tell us so much, don’t you think?’
‘About the people inside. Are you ready to give up your secrets?’
‘Secrets? What secrets? This is a bachelor pad. A bolthole and sanctuary wrapped in one. It’s all I could afford after the divorce. Sorry—I lost track of time.’ Jack took off his leather apron and laid it over the back of a chair. ‘I was just polishing an old secretaire out in the courtyard.’
‘You were doing—what?’
‘I’m restoring an antique. My booty from the little buying trip you so kindly allowed me to go on.’
‘Your friend was very persuasive.’
‘I did warn you about him.’
‘I’m a big girl.’
‘Here, I’ll show you. How did you like the Barrier Reef?’
‘It took my breath away.’
The back of the cottage opened into a small courtyard garden with a fountain in the middle. The small, ornate desk stood on a drop sheet next to the fountain.
‘This is beautiful. What is it?’
‘A cedar secretaire, circa 1870, made by one of the early cabinetmakers of Sydney. Here, look at the trade label: “W. Jones & Son of Ross Street, Glebe”. Its opening is cantilevered forward and decorated with two blind drawers’, said Jack, folding down the top of the secretaire. ‘There are three more drawers under here—see—supported by two turned full columns. There should also be a secret compartment somewhere in there. I was just trying to find it when you arrived.’
Rebecca held up her hand. ‘Stop it,’ she said, laughing, ‘you sound like one of those judges on the Antiques Roadshow.’
‘Sorry. That’s collector’s speak, I’m afraid. I don’t notice it anymore.’
‘You’re a dark horse, Jack Rogan.’
‘I like working with my hands. I collect antiques, mainly early Australian colonial furniture. When I can afford it. Ah, here it is,’ said Jack, exploring the back of one of the drawers with the tips of his fingers, ‘the secret compartment. There must be a brass spring somewhere in here, and a knob. Yes! You pull it out’, he said. ‘Who knows what treasures are hidden within?’
‘How exciting!’ Rebecca reached inside and carefully pulled out the little cedar drawer. ‘Empty, I’m afraid’, she said, holding up the exquisite little box.
‘Not quite’, Jack said. ‘There’s something tucked into the corner here. Well, what do you know? Look at this.’ He held up a silver bracelet and began to polish it with his handkerchief. ‘Here, have a look.’ He handed the bracelet to Rebecca.
‘How romantic. If only it could talk’, she said, holding it up to the light.
‘Perhaps it can. Look over here. There’s an inscription on the inside.’
‘What does it say?’
‘One word–Örökke. How strange. I wonder what it means.’
‘Could it be a name, you think?’
‘No idea. It really doesn’t matter, I suppose’, continued Jack. ‘I want you to have it. Here, let me put it on.’
‘I couldn’t possibly, Jack. It’s yours …’
‘Don’t be silly.’ Jack reached for her wrist. ‘I insist. There, it’s done. Look. A perfect fit.’
‘That’s very sweet of you, thank you.’ She gave him a peck on the cheek.
‘And thanks for the party’, said Jack. ‘Come on, let me show you around.’
‘You have some exquisite pieces. What’s this?’ asked Rebecca, running her hand over the gleaming surface of a cedar chest with brass corner plates and brass handles.
‘You have a good eye. This is one of my best pieces. A campaign chest.’
‘What; for going to war?’
‘Not quite. Governor Fitzroy commissioned a Sydney cabinetmaker, Andrew Lenehan, in about 1860—the same year, incidentally, this cottage was built—to make specimen boxes for the presentation of gold samples to Queen Victoria. This is one of them. Gold was discovered in New South Wales in 1851.’
‘How fascinating. And this?’
‘This is a writing slope. A kind of portable desk, also made of cedar. It’s mitre-joined at the corners here, with recessed brass carrying handles. It has internal compartments for writing utensils and documents. It also has a secret compartment—here—to hide love letters and gold coins.’
‘Drum roll, please. And now comes the surprise; its value? What’s it worth?’ teased Rebecca.
‘You’re making fun of me. Am I boring you?’
‘Not at all’, said Rebecca, putting her hand reassuringly on Jack’s arm. ‘You have quite a collection.’ Rebecca pointed to the painting above the chest. ‘This is fabulous. What is it?’
‘Brett Whiteley. Do you like it?’
‘Fascinating. Antiques and modern paintings. Polished wooden floorboards and sandstone walls. Not at all what I expected.’
‘What did you expect?’ asked Jack, handing Rebecca a glass of wine. ‘Homes tell us so much …’
‘I can’t really say. But not this …’ she replied.
‘You know, this is the first time we’ve had a conversation like this since you took me under your wing’, said Jack quietly. It had been just over three months since his New York publisher had introduced him to Rebecca Armstrong. It was an unlikely fit. The tall, lanky, suntanned Australian larrikin first-time author with the funny accent, and the elegant, sophisticated New York PR agent representing several well established writers on the bestseller list. Faded jeans and leather jackets met Hermes and Cartier; the experienced New Yorker taking on the rookie from Down Under. Yet somehow, it worked. It worked because Jack had written an exceptional book and genuinely needed help in dealing with his success and sudden fame. Rebecca found his inexperience endearing, and his willingness to listen to her advice strangely flattering. And there was one more thing: it was exciting to be around him.
‘You know a lot about me. But I know very little about you’, Jack said. ‘That’s not quite fair, don’t you think?’
Rebecca laughed. ‘What do you want to know?’
‘Surely you didn’t just pop up out of nowhere one day as a successful businesswoman in New York? You must have somehow clawed your way through that treacherous jungle first.’
For a while she looked at him pensively.
‘Where did you come from, I wonder?’ Jack asked, reaching for her hand.
Rebecca wore large glasses, giving her an endearingly studious look that didn’t quite go with the designer labels and expensive French accessories. Jack suspected this was deliberate. Somehow, the glasses always stood out. She had several pairs to suit different occasions, just like handbags and shoes. That afternoon, she was wearing an old-fashioned tortoiseshell pair that kept sliding down her nose. She kept pushing them back up with her index finger while pursing her lips.
‘That’s quite a question. Have you heard of Lancaster County?’ Rebecca asked.
‘Pennsylvania. Amish territory …’
‘Well informed, as usual.’ She nodded appreciatively. ‘My maiden name was Stolzfus. I grew up on a small farm outside Philadelphia with my three brothers. We had no electricity, no television, radio or kitchen appliances. Musical instruments were forbidden and cars not allowed.’
‘Buggy?’ interrupted Jack.
‘Right again. We spoke Pennsylvania Dutch and our only transport was a horse-drawn buggy, which took us to the markets in Philly once a week with our produce—eggs and fresh vegetables. I tended a small stall with my mother in my long black dress, apron and starched white bonnet.’
‘Very cute. I can just see you …’ Jack teased.
‘My brothers were all carpenters making furniture in the barn behind our house when they didn’t work in the fields’, Rebecca continued, undeterred. ‘Mother and I made quilts in the evenings by candlelight. My father had a long beard but no moustache—that too was forbidden—and always wore a straw hat and baggy black trousers held up by braces.’
‘And I’m supposed to be the dark horse here’, interjected Jack, refilling Rebecca’s glass.
‘Fun was a barn-raising with lots of laughter, prayer and games, and enough food to feed the entire county for a year. It was a community event. You know, everyone pulling together to help a neighbour. That’s where I met Amos …’ Rebecca paused and turned away, her eyes misting over. It only lasted for an instant, opening a tiny crack in her otherwise carefully controlled demeanour.
‘Amos?’ asked Jack.
‘My first husband. We fell in love and ran away, leaving everything behind—’
‘I haven’t been lucky with men …’
Jack sensed it was time to change the subject. ‘I ran away too’, he said. ‘As you know, I left a Queensland cattle station for the big smoke. I started out sweeping floors and running errands for a Brisbane newspaper.’
Appreciating his tact, Rebecca looked at Jack and smiled. There’s a lot more to this guy, she thought, than he lets you see. ‘And I started out as a receptionist, working for a fashion magazine in New York’, she said.
‘The Devil Wears Prada stuff?’
Rebecca chuckled. ‘A bit like that, but without the free clothes. You saw the movie?’
‘What was it like; growing up on a cattle station?’
Jack took his time before replying and looked pensively at Rebecca. ‘Lonely and harsh’, he said. ‘I learned to ride before I could walk and helped around the house as soon as I could stand. Our closest neighbour was fifty miles away, and it took three hours on a good day to reach town in the old ute. I used to ride in the back with Bonny and Clyde.’
‘I thought you had no siblings’, interrupted Rebecca.
Jack began to chuckle. ‘Bonny and Clyde were our cattle dogs. Sharp as tacks. They were my friends. Our enemy was the drought. It was never far away,’ said Jack, turning serious, ‘and when it came, it lasted for years. That’s when the land became a dustbowl, the cattle began to die, and the bank manager came knocking.’ Jack looked away. ‘Mum hated it with a passion. She was a country girl from Wales. She married my father when she was just eighteen …’
Realising that she had opened old wounds, Rebecca reached across and put her hand on Jack’s. ‘What happened to your parents?’ she asked.
‘Mum left. One day, she couldn’t take it anymore and ran off with the publican in town. We never saw her again. And then I ran away too’, Jack said, the sadness in his voice reflecting the heartache of painful memories. ‘Dad eked out a living on the cattle station with three Aboriginal stockmen until he got sick …’
‘What happened to him?’
‘He lost the farm and died a broken man in a boarding house in Townsville a few years ago.’
‘Such is life’, said Jack, reaching for his wine glass. ‘We all have to follow our own path. Often barefoot, and some of it is treacherous and paved with nails.’
Rebecca squeezed Jack’s hand. ‘Your divorce?’ she asked, changing direction.
‘Messy, like all of them.’
Jack shrugged. ‘Girlfriends? Are you kidding? With my diabolical schedule? I couldn’t keep a canary in a cage …’
‘Interesting comparison …’
‘You know what they say: a rolling stone gathers no moss.’
‘Poor boy … But it wasn’t always that way. What about that policewoman in your book?’
Rebecca nodded, watching Jack carefully.
‘She was an old flame. You can’t reignite old flames; it doesn’t work. The spark isn’t there anymore’, Jack said pensively. ‘In the end, she fell for the other guy.’
‘Marcus Carrington, the lawyer …’
The look on Jack’s face told Rebecca it was time to back off. ‘We’re still friends’, said Jack. Rebecca wasn’t convinced. ‘Now, let me show you something interesting …’ Jack pointed to a curious piece consisting of three wooden steps leading nowhere.
‘What on earth is that?’ asked Rebecca.
‘Bed steps. That’s how you climbed into the feathers in the good old days. The top step here opens up—see—for your jewellery and personal stuff. But the really important part was this.’ Jack opened the second step and pulled out a lidded commode seat.
‘Is this what I think it is?’ asked Rebecca, a sparkle in her eye.
‘Sure is! The chamber pot is over there’, said Jack, pointing to the window sill. But enough of the tour. How about some dinner?’
‘I was beginning to think you’d never ask.’ They linked arms and strolled down the corridor towards the kitchen.
‘Unlucky with men, eh?’
‘A woman like you? You’re obviously looking in the wrong places’, said Jack.
‘Looking under stones would be a wrong place then?’
‘Thanks, Jack. I’ll keep that in mind.’
‘I promised to cook for you, remember? Well, this is your lucky day.’
‘I’m sure it is. You’re the first man who ever offered to cook something just for me. I can’t wait.’
‘You may be sorry.’
‘I doubt it.’
‘Amish, eh? You’d be used to plain tucker then …’ teased Jack, opening the door to the kitchen.
‘We may be known as the Plain People, but the food, I tell you, was never plain.’
‘Neither is my cooking; follow me.’
Did you enjoy this sample?
The Disappearance of Anna Popov is now available on Amazon at this link
My next book, The Hidden Genes of Professor K, has just been released. Here’s a short sample to pique your interest:
World-renowned scientist, Professor K knows he’s close to a groundbreaking discovery. He also knows he’s dying. With his last breath he anoints Dr Alexandra Delacroix as his successor and pleads with her to carry on his work. Delacroix unwittingly enters a dangerous world of unbridled ambition and greed that threatens to destroy her. Desperate and alone, she turns to celebrated author and journalist, Jack Rogan.
Alistair Macbeth, self-made billionaire and enigmatic founder of Blackburn Pharmaceuticals, has a murky past. He knows he must secure Professor K’s discovery for his empire, or perish. Powerful and ruthless, he will stop at nothing to achieve his black and deep desires.
Meanwhile, when the parents of a famous rock star, Isis, are brutally murdered, Jack Rogan is asked to investigate.
On a perilous journey of discovery that takes them around the globe, Jack and Lola Rodriguez—Isis’ resourceful PA—join forces with Jana Gonski, a former police officer; Dr Bettany Rosen, a tireless campaigner for the destitute and forgotten; and Tristan, a gifted boy with psychic powers. Together, they expose a complex web of fiercely guarded secrets and heinous crimes of the past that can ruin them all, and change history.
Will Rogan succeed? Will the dreams of a visionary scientist with the power to change the future of medicine fall into the wrong hands, or will his genius benefit mankind and prevent untold misery and suffering for generations to come?
Leura, Blue Mountains, Australia
A dark, disturbing and nail-biting medical thriller
Jack Rogan Mysteries Book 4
Edwin Smith, a colourful character, is remembered for something he did one hot afternoon in a Luxor bazaar in Egypt in 1862. He bought a papyrus that turned out to be one of the oldest medical texts in the world.
I first came across the Edwin Smith Papyrus some twenty years ago. I was studying Egyptology at the time, learning to read the hieroglyphs at night, because during the day I was a practising barrister and spent most of my days in court. Archaeology was my passion and has remained so to this very day.
Our professor used this unique text as an illustration of the extraordinary achievements of the Ancient Egyptians. The 4.6-metre-long papyrus is written right to left in hieratic, a cursive form of hieroglyphs. Experts believe it was composed in about 1500 BC.
However, what is particularly fascinating about the papyrus is that it is now believed to be a copy of a much older text dating back to the Old Kingdom. And it doesn’t stop there. Some scholars maintain that the true author of the text was none other than Imhotep, a remarkable renaissance man of the Old Kingdom who lived in around 2600 BC, and rose to high office under the pharaoh Djoser. Imhotep was a gifted architect, engineer, high priest and physician who, two thousand years after his death, was deified and became the god of medicine and healing. Centuries later, the ancient Greeks associated him with Asklepios, the god of medicine.
What makes this text so unique is the fact it describes forty-eight case histories based on rational anatomical, physiological and pathological observations, without looking at them through the eyes of magic, which was the accepted way to deal with disease, injury and trauma at the time.
Fascinated by the text, I immersed myself in the papyrus, which was translated by Breasted, an eminent Egyptologist, in 1930. That was how I came across case 46.
Case 46 deals with ‘bulging tumours of the breast … large, spreading and hard …’ A more accurate description of breast cancer is difficult to imagine. For the first time in human history, the Emperor of Darkness—cancer—made its appearance in literature.
Every case study in the papyrus is followed by a discussion of its treatment except in case 46 for which, according to Imhotep, there was none.
Cancer is an ancient disease. Progress in medical research, especially in recent years, has been breathtaking. We have come a long way, yet have we come any closer to conquering this powerful, malevolent disease, or do we have to agree with Imhotep’s prognosis 4500 years ago—that in many cases, there is no cure?
This question has been asked countless times through the ages and has plagued the medical profession for centuries. The search for an answer became the inspiration for this book.
Leura, Blue Mountains, Australia
Gordon Institute, Sydney: September 2011
Professor Kasper Kozakievicz—Professor K to colleagues because his name was almost impossible to pronounce—looked at the computer printout on his desk and smiled; the results were exactly as he had expected. A tremendous feeling of elation quickened his heartbeat, making his emaciated body tremble with excitement. Reaching for his chair to steady himself, he suddenly felt dizzy and weak. Stars began to dance in front of his eyes, just before a bundle of sharp darts embedded in his brain. Moments later, his knees gave way and he collapsed to the floor.
Professor K had known for months he was dying. The cancer—a particularly aggressive one—had spread rapidly with relentless predictability. To an eminent research scientist, the prognosis was obvious: death was only a matter of time. Rather than subjecting himself to unpleasant and debilitating treatment to buy a few more feeble days, he had thrown himself deeper into his research, much to the dismay of his exasperated family, friends and colleagues. Only those who knew him well understood what he was doing, and why.
Ironically, the day he diagnosed his own cancer was the very day an unexpected breakthrough occurred in his research. From that day on, he knew he was getting close, very close. All he needed was a little more time—but time was running out.
Professor K opened his eyes. Darkness. He tried to move his fingers, but they wouldn’t obey. Then slowly, a wave of excruciating pain reached his tortured brain as he regained consciousness and the darkness receded. Professor K knew exactly what was happening: death was standing at the door! Mustering the last of his remaining strength, he got unsteadily to his feet and fell into his chair. My notes, he thought, where are my notes? Trying not to panic, he searched his cluttered desktop for his research notes with shaking hands. Finding the little notebook under a pile of papers, he relaxed as a hint of a smile creased his wan face. Then, taking a deep breath, he reached for his pen and began to write like a man possessed.
On the other side of the globe, Dr Alexandra Delacroix was fast asleep in her Marseilles apartment, located next to the Université De La Méditerranée School of Medicine where she worked, when her mobile rang. She wasn’t used to getting phone calls in the middle of the night, and sensed it must be something important. Instantly awake, she reached for the phone on her bedside table, peered at the incoming number and pressed answer. ‘Do you know what time it is, Kasper?’ she said sleepily.
‘I do, Lexi’, replied the professor calmly. ‘Please listen carefully; there isn’t much time. I’m talking to you as a man who is about to die, but more importantly, I’m talking to you as a fellow scientist.’
Silence. Dr Delacroix had known about her mentor’s illness for some time, but was unaware how far it had progressed. ‘How bad is it?’ she asked.
‘I won’t see tomorrow …’
I would like you to be my successor, so to speak.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I think I’ve found a breakthrough in cancer diagnosis and treatment.’
Again, silence. Then, ‘Across the board?’
‘Quite possibly. It’s groundbreaking.’
‘Are you serious?’
‘My God, Kasper, do you realise what you are saying?’
‘I do. There’s still a long way to go with all the trials and such, but the proof is right here in front of me. But only you will understand my crazy notes and abbreviations, and how it all works.’
‘What about Cavendish; isn’t he next in line?’
‘Cavendish is a plodder. Too much ambition, not enough talent. He’s not in your league. This is far too important. I want you—’
‘Because we’ve worked together before, you mean?’ interrupted Dr Delacroix.
‘Yes, and because of who you are’, said the professor, sounding weak.
‘Speak up, Kasper, I can barely hear you’, said Dr Delacroix, raising her voice. For a while, all she could hear was heavy breathing on the other end of the line.
‘I can’t see any more’, said the professor, gasping for breath.
‘Stay with me, Kasper!’ shrieked Dr Delacroix. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘It’s all in my notes and the specimens. I’ve put everything into the safe here in the lab. This is the combination. Write it down: 12 … 48 … 62. Got that?’
‘12, 48, 62’, repeated Dr Delacroix.
‘Good’, sighed the professor, suddenly calmer. ‘Will you be my intellectual heir, so to speak?’
‘Carry the torch; promise?’ whispered the professor.
‘As my friend?’
‘Then you must hurry! A position is waiting for you here at the Gordon. It’s all arranged.’
‘And Cavendish?’ Dr Delacroix asked again.
‘Don’t worry about him!’
Her mind racing, Dr Delacroix considered the implications. She would have to give up her position at the Institute for Structural Biology and Microbiology at the University and move to Sydney. The professor’s offer was the opportunity of a lifetime. Cavendish could be a problem, but there was really nothing to consider. ‘Can’t you get some help?’ she asked, concerned about her dying friend.
‘It’s Sunday morning; there’s no one here. And besides,’ whispered the professor, ‘it’s too late for that now. At least it hasn’t been in vain …’
‘What did you say?’ shouted Dr Delacroix, her eyes misting over. There was no reply; all she could hear was silence.
Olympic Stadium, Moscow: September 2011
The gigantic, semi-circular stage erected inside the Olympic Stadium had been transformed into a haunted cemetery, complete with cobwebbed tombstones flanked by crying angels, sad-looking willow trees, live crows in cages and a large, pale moon, suspended from a mobile crane. Set against a backdrop depicting frightening ghouls and hooded monks, clever props and light effects completed the illusion. In front of the stage, a hundred thousand eager fans waited excitedly to hear the band. They began to chant ‘Isis! Isis! Isis!’ as their idols walked on stage. Whipping up the crowd, the drummer began the introduction to their signature number—‘It’s Time; come with us’—before the throbbing bass joined in and the guitars screamed into life. The Russian leg of Isis and the Time Machine’s Echoes from the Grave World Tour had begun.
Transformed into an Egyptian goddess in her white silk robe and golden crown, Isis lay motionless in a glass coffin six feet below the stage. The hydraulics engineer adjusted the switches and waited for the signal from the stage manager. As the band was about to finish ‘It’s Time’, the stage manager gave the nod. Slowly, the coffin ascended.
On the stage above, a large tombstone made of plywood and papier-mâché also began to rise, while green, smoke-like fog oozed out of the other tombs and covered the stage. As the glass coffin emerged from the open grave, the crowd became hysterical. The security guards in front of the stage barely managed to hold back the howling fans as Isis came into view. The guitars fell silent, and only the drummer continued with a mesmerising, blood-boiling solo.
On cue, the engineer flicked another switch and the glass lid of the coffin slowly opened. Suddenly, Isis came to life. First, she raised her arms, then her head. The guitars were back, playing ‘Resurrection’, the first track of the Time Machine’s new studio album, which had shot to number one in twenty-eight countries since its release a month earlier.
Isis now stood up in the open coffin, took off her serpent crown and tossed it towards the jubilant crowd. Then she let the white robe slip from her shoulders, exposing her stunning, tattooed body. Wearing only a tiny black bikini studded with diamonds, her trademark black boots and fishnet stockings, Isis somersaulted out of the coffin—her acrobatic feats on stage were legendary—and began to sing.
Lola Rodriguez, Isis’ fiery personal assistant, took the phone call and paled. Collecting her thoughts, she slipped the phone back into her pocket and began to look for the production manager. ‘Where’s Ed?’ she asked, hurrying to the improvised change rooms behind the stage. The sound technician sitting in his booth pointed to some scaffolding supporting the five storey high canvas backdrop. Ed Walker, the production manager, was keeping an eye on the stage through a small window cut into the canvas.
‘Can I have a word?’ shouted Lola, trying to make herself heard. The music was deafening.
‘Not now, Lola, she’s about to come off for a costume change’, replied the production manager, looking stressed.
‘Okay. What’s up?’ asked Ed. When Lola told him about the phone call, he was visibly shocked. ‘Jesus, Lola, what are you going to do?’
‘I have to tell her right now, what else?’
‘Can’t you wait until after the show?’
‘Are you kidding? She’ll eat me alive if she finds out I’ve held this back.’
‘You’re right. Good luck! Here she comes.’
Blowing kisses to her adoring fans, Isis strutted off the stage, her body covered in tiny beads of perspiration glistening like diamonds in the spotlight. Isis caught her breath, took a glass of iced tea from the waiting attendant and headed straight for her change room. The next five minutes were vital. During this short time, she would undergo a breathtaking transformation. Similar to a pit stop in a Formula One race, the costume team waiting for her knew exactly what had to be done. Every second counted.
Isis began her breathing exercises, swept into the tiny room and, standing in front of a large mirror, let her team go to work. Any interruption or distraction of any kind during this critical procedure was strictly forbidden.
Lola pushed past the frowning make-up artist and stood next to Isis. Isis watched her in the mirror and shot her a disapproving look that would have sent a grown tiger packing. ‘I must speak to you privately …’ began Lola haltingly, ‘it’s urgent.’
‘What; now? Are you out of your mind?’ hissed Isis. Lola insisted. Isis realised at once something was wrong. ‘Everybody out’, she commanded curtly. ‘Put my entry back three minutes and close the door.’ Everybody stopped working and left the room. ‘This better be good’, said Isis, carefully watching her personal assistant.
During the next sixty seconds, Lola recounted her earlier telephone conversation with the London police. Isis sat down on the make-up stool, her face ashen, and for a while didn’t say anything. Her mind racing, she contemplated the consequences of what she’d just heard.
‘What are you going to do?’ asked Lola, conscious of precious seconds ticking by.
‘I’ll go back on and complete the show. As soon as it’s over, you and I will fly to London. Get my plane ready—’
‘What about Tokyo?’ interjected Lola, ‘The next concert is in three days.’
‘Everything goes ahead as planned. I’ll be there in time. Does anyone else know about this?’
‘Good. Now, send them all back in, and not a word of this to anyone; understood?’ Lola nodded. Isis leaned across to Lola and kissed her tenderly on the forehead. ‘Thank you, Lola. I don’t know what I’d do without you.’
Her cheeks glowing, Lola hurried out of the room. She lived for moments like this.
Pegasus—Isis’ private jet—began its descent in preparation for landing. Lola walked to the back of the plane to wake her mistress. ‘We’re almost there’, she whispered, gently touching Isis on the shoulder. Isis nodded, but didn’t open her eyes. ‘Your car will meet us on the tarmac. We should get to the hospital within the hour, London traffic permitting.’
Slumped into the back seat of her black Bentley, Isis was trying to prepare herself for what she sensed would be a life changing ordeal. She hated hospitals with a passion, but worst of all was not knowing what had happened. They had been told so little. For someone used to being in control, uncertainty was torture. All she knew was that her parents, Lord and Lady Elms, had been attacked in their London home. Her father was dead and her mother on life support, not expected to live.
Two policemen from the Metropolitan Police met them at the designated side entrance to the hospital’s casualty section and ushered them discreetly inside. Standing in the lift behind Boris, her Ukrainian wrestling-champion turned bodyguard who followed her everywhere like a shadow, Isis reached for Lola’s hand and squeezed it. Isis had always found looking at the huge man’s massive frame and bulging neck muscles reassuring, but not so this time. Boris could protect her from many things, but not from what she was about to encounter.
As she followed the policemen down a dimly lit corridor smelling of cleaning fluids and disinfectant, Isis tried in vain to calm herself. She could confidently go on stage and face a hundred thousand adoring fans, yet with each step her anxiety grew, fear clawing at her throat.
The softly spoken surgeon waiting at the end of the corridor explained with clinical efficiency that Lady Elms was conscious, but could slip away at any moment. ‘She’s waiting for you’, he said. ‘That is what’s been keeping her alive. I don’t think she’ll be able to speak anymore, but she wants to see you …’ Opening the door he added, ‘I must warn you, her injuries are horrific.’
Isis nodded and went into the room alone.
At first, Isis thought there had been a terrible mistake. The person lying on the bed in no way resembled her mother. The face—mutilated beyond recognition—looked as if it had been attacked with a meat cleaver. Head turned towards the door, the person was staring at her with unseeing eyes. Then something happened: sensing her son’s presence, Lady Elms’ dying brain produced a final moment of clarity. Her mouth opened and the lips began to move, but there was no sound. However, coming closer, Isis thought she could hear something.
‘Georgie?’ whispered the mangled piece of flesh on the pillow. The face may have been unrecognisable, but there was no mistaking the voice.
‘Mama!’ cried Isis, falling to her knees next to the bed.
‘I knew you would come. Listen …’ said Lady Elms, her voice barely audible. Exhausted by the effort, she kept staring at Isis. Her lips kept moving, unable to form words.
‘Hush … You must rest’, cried Isis, reaching for her mother’s limp hand.
The touch of her son’s hand seemed to revive Lady Elms. ‘Great danger … for you’, she warned. With her eyesight gone and blood filling her lungs, Lady Elms began to choke. ‘My …’ she whispered, her voice barely audible, ‘our secret place … hide and seek—remember?’
‘I do. But what—’
‘Stars, hide your fires …’ With her last breath fading, the unfinished sentence turned into a final farewell from a loving mother leaving an inconsolable son to mourn her tragic departure.
The surgeon’s trained ear heard it first: the alarm on the life support system had been activated. He burst into the room, followed by Boris and Lola. The furiously flashing lights on the monitors told him everything he needed to know: his patient was dead. Blood was still oozing out of Lady Elms’ open mouth. Kneeling on the floor next to the bed, her cheeks covered in blood, Isis was sobbing uncontrollably. Shaking his head sadly, the surgeon walked over to the machine and turned it off.
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As a lawyer with a passion for history and archaeology, Gabriel Farago had to wait for many years before being able to pursue another passion—writing—in earnest. However, his love of books and storytelling started long before that.
‘I remember as a young boy reading biographies and history books with a torch under the bed covers,’ he recalls, ‘and then writing stories about archaeologists and explorers the next day, instead of doing homework. While I regularly got into trouble for this, I believe we can only do well in our endeavours if we are passionate about the things we love. For me, writing has become a passion.’
Born in Budapest, Gabriel grew up in post-war Europe and, after fleeing Hungary with his parents during the Revolution in 1956, he went to school in Austria before arriving in Australia as a teenager. This allowed him to become multi-lingual and feel ‘at home’ in different countries and diverse cultures.
Shaped by a long legal career and experiences spanning several decades and continents, his is a mature voice that speaks in many tongues. Gabriel holds degrees in literature and law, speaks several languages and takes research and authenticity very seriously. Inquisitive by nature, he studied Egyptology and learned to read the hieroglyphs. He travels extensively and visits all of the locations mentioned in his books.
‘I try to weave fact and fiction into a seamless storyline’, he explains. ‘By blurring the boundaries between the two, the reader is never quite sure where one ends, and the other begins. This is of course quite deliberate as it creates the illusion of authenticity and reality in a work that is pure fiction. A successful work of fiction is a balancing act: reality must rub shoulders with imagination in a way that is both entertaining and plausible.’
Gabriel lives just outside Sydney, Australia, in the Blue Mountains, surrounded by a World Heritage National Park. ‘The beauty and solitude of this unique environment,’ he points out, ‘gives me the inspiration and energy to weave my thoughts and ideas into stories that in turn, I sincerely hope, will entertain and inspire my readers.’
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Learn more about Gabriel and his writing
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When celebrated author Jack Rogan stumbles upon a hidden diary, he can’t resist investigating. Honouring the last wish of a dying friend, he is irresistibly drawn into a web of intriguing clues, hinting at a long forgotten treasure. Joining forces with Cecilia Crawford, a glamorous New York journalist, and Tristan, a remarkable boy with psychic powers, Jack soon finds himself on a precarious journey of discovery, exposing dark secrets from a distant, violent time, when life was cheap and cruelty ruled without mercy. Meanwhile, Emil Fuchs, an enigmatic Swiss banker with a murky past, has an agenda of his own. Ruthless, and determined to defend his reputation at all cost, he threatens to expose a fraud that could destroy everything. Will Rogan succeed? Can he find the forgotten treasure he has been searching for, or will it be lost forever, depriving the world of a masterpiece that belongs to all mankind?